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Occasional Pieces

Occasional Pieces
Writings and Interviews, 1952–2013

Christian Wolff

w i t h a f o r e wo r d b y G e o r g e E . L e w i s

1
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Wolff, Christian, 1934– author. | Lewis, George, 1952– writer of foreword.
Title: Occasional pieces: writings and interviews, 1952–2013/Christian Wolff;
with a foreword by George E. Lewis.
Description: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017. |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016028230 (print) | LCCN 2016028835 (ebook) |
ISBN 9780190222895 (hardcover: alk. paper) | ISBN 9780190614706 (pbk.: alk. paper) |
ISBN 9780190222901 (Updf) | ISBN 9780190222918 (Epub)
Subjects: LCSH: Music—United States—20th century—History and criticism. |
Music—United States—21st century—History and criticism. |
Composers—United States—20th century—Interviews.
Classification: LCC ML410.W814 A25 2017 (print) | LCC ML410.W814 (ebook) |
DDC 780.973—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016028230

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Contents

Foreword by George E. Lewisâ•…vii


Author’s Prefaceâ•…xvii

1. (One of) Four Musicians at Work (1952)â•…3


2. On Webern (1955)â•…7
3. New and Electronic Music (1958)â•…11
4. On Form (1960)â•…19
5. Questions (1964)â•…27
6. Electricity and Music (1968)â•…31
7. Interview with Victor Schonfield (1969)â•…37
8. Fragments to Make Up an Interview (1970–71)â•…43
9. For Merce (1975)â•…49
10. Conversation with Walter Zimmermann (1976)â•…51
11. Frederic Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated
(1978)â•…67
12. On Political Texts and New Music (1980)â•…71
13. On the Death of Cornelius Cardew (1981)â•…83
14. On Notation (1984)â•…85
15. Open to Whom and to What (1987)â•…87
16. Morton Feldman Memorial Text (1987)â•…97
17. On Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 (1988, 1995)â•…99
18. On Morton Feldman’s Music (1990)â•…105
19. What Is Our Work? (1990)â•…107
20. On Charles Ives (1990)â•…119
21. Keith Rowe, A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality (1990)â•…123
vi Co ntents

22. On Dieter Schnebel’s Marsyas (1990)â•…125


23. Floating Rhythm and Experimental Percussion (1990)â•…131
24. Quiet Music (1991)â•…141
25. Interview with Cole Gagne (1992)â•…143
26. Interview with Markus Trunk (1992)â•…169
27. Briefly on Cornelius Cardew and John Cage (1992)â•…191
28. John Cage Memorial Text (1992)â•…193
29. Preface to John Cage, Morton Feldman: Radio Happenings I–V (1993)â•…195
30. Sketch of a Statement (1993)â•…197
31. Music—Work—Experiment—Politics (1995)â•…201
32. Letter to Suzanne Josek (1996)â•…211
33. Thinking of David Tudor (1997)â•…213
34. Most Material: Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost (1997)â•…217
35. Frederic Rzewski and His Piano Music (2001)â•…219
36. Merce Cunningham and CW Music (2001)â•…227
37. Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (2002)â•…229
38. Earle Brown—Chamber Music (2004)â•…235
39. Some Notes on Charles Ives and Politics (2004)â•…241
40. On Day-to-Day Composing Work (2004)â•…247
41. Remembering Grete Sultan (2005)â•…249
42. On Music with Cunningham Events (2008)â•…251
43. Some Recollections of Arthur Russell (2009)â•…253
44. On Verbal Notation (2009)â•…257
45. Experimental Music around 1950 and Some Consequences and
Causes (2009)â•…259
46. Interview with James Saunders (2009)â•…275
47. Crossings of Experimental Music and Greek Tragedy (2010)â•…287
48. About Merce (2010)â•…309
49. What Can I Still Say about John Cage? (2012)â•…313
50. Thinking Yet Again about John Cage (2012)â•…315
51. The First Performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations (2012)â•…319
52. Robyn Schulkowsky’s Worlds of Percussion (2013)â•…321
53. Selected Program Notesâ•…327

Indexâ•…339
Fo r e wo r d
George E. Lewis

Christian Wolff has lived more lifetimes in music than even his date of birth
would suggest. Imagine being able to say that Theodor Adorno came to your
performance and talked about it with you after, even if David Tudor felt com-
pelled to tell him, “You haven’t understood a thing.” (p. 214) Wolff has con-
tributed trenchant discourses to two seemingly distant disciplines—classics and
music. However, Wolff ’s writing about both, as presented in these pages, evinces
a certain modest lack of ease with his own historicity—the establishment of
which (unlike, say, Karlheinz Stockhausen) he seems content to leave to others,
while the ambivalence is further heightened by the very act of collecting and
republishing these writings.
With regard to this aspect of Wolff ’s music, I want to take into account Nicolas
Bourriaud’s declaration that “The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as
its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context,
rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points
to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced
by  modern art.”1 Bourriaud presents the notion of a “relational” artwork that
proposes “moments of sociability” and creates “objects producing sociability.”
Membership in the relational world is centered upon this primary criterion:
“Does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the
space it defines?”2
Among Wolff ’s pieces, the most obvious candidates for inclusion under a
rubric of relationality would be the works that he describes as “contingent,” such
as Duo for Violinist and Pianist (1961) and For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964), which in
Bourriaud’s terms, “operate like a relational device containing a certain degree
of randomness, or a machine provoking and managing individual and group

1
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002), 14.
2
Ibid., 109.

vii
viii Fore word

encounters.”3 These works require the performers to perform actions according


to, among other things, their perceptions of what other performers are doing,
their position in the score, and certain overarching rules. The composer provides
an environment in which real-time decision making by performers, and there-
fore responsibility for the direction of the music, is paramount.4
Moreover, Wolff uses contingency to explore the sound of sociality, intention,
and consensus:

I realized that the kind of sound made in an indeterminate situation in-


cludes what could result in no other way; for example, the sound of a player
making up his mind, or having to change it. In fact, the indeterminate no-
tation I’ve used is, as far as I know, the only possible one for the kind of
sound I should like. And don’t forget, we also like to be surprised. (p. 27)

But well before Wolff developed his interactive, indeterminate notation for the
management of group interactions,5 one could already see the pursuit of rela-
tionality in his early, fully notated works. Duo for Violins (1950) comprehen-
sively presents the possibilities of contrapuntal relations among the pitches D5,
Eb5 and E5,6 and in Trio I (1951) for flute, trumpet, and cello, Wolff ’s interest,
as he later recalled, was “in the internal variables of the sonority, the large variety
of possible combinations when one thinks of all the possible simultaneities and
kinds of overlaps of four pitches on three instruments.” (p. 327)
The result becomes an orientation for which “the playing is not so much an
expression of the player (or composer) as a way of connecting, making a com-
munity.” (p. 85) Even so, Wolff remembered at one point that

You never think of yourself as part of tradition or a member of a group.


What happens is that there are a number [of] ideas around, some of
which you have in common with others. All that we had in common
was a desire to do something different, so as to be clear of styles which
were not ours to borrow, or which seem to have gone dead. (p. 38)

The demographic contours of that community have come down to us histori-


cally, and it is fair to say that its self-awareness included a strong European/

Ibid., 30.
3

Christian Wolff, For 1, 2, or 3 People, (New York, London, Frankfurt, Leipzig: C.F. Peters, 1964).
4

5
See David Behrman, “What Indeterminate Notation Determines,” Perspectives of New Music 3,
no. 2 (1965): 58–73.
6
Michael Hicks and Christian Asplund, Christian Wolff (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
2012), 12. Also see Michael Hicks, “â•›‘Our Webern’: Cage and Feldman’s Devotion to Christian Wolff,”
in Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff, eds. Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, 3–22
(Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), 15–16.
Fore word ix

American axis of orientation, and was largely white and male. Wolff invokes the
names we know:

So there are writings about John Cage, my one and only teacher (for
only a brief time), then lifelong friend and supporter, Morton Feldman,
Earle Brown, David Tudor, Frederic Rzewski, and Cornelius Cardew,
also about Keith Rowe, Dieter Schnebel, Eddie Prévost, Arthur Russell,
Pauline Oliveros, Luigi Nono, David Behrman, and Robyn Schulkowsky.
And there is the dancer Merce Cunningham, whom I met in 1950
shortly after meeting Cage. (p. xviii)

In his groundbreaking book, Experimentalism Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut asks,


“How have these composers been collected together in the first place, that they
can now be the subject of a description?” Going further, Piekut notes that the
question is “the proper starting place for an investigation into what experimental
music was in the last century. Experimentalism is a grouping, not a group, and
any account of it must be able, in the words of Michel Foucault, ‘to recognize the
events of history, its jolts, its surprises, its unsteady victories and unpalatable
defeats.’â•›”7
These writings by Wolff take up Foucault’s challenge, but they also point
out  the role of the artists themselves in constituting the grouping. Like the
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an assemblage of
�experimentalists whose work, for an earlier generation of music historians,
seemed somehow too distant from the community outlined above, Morton
Feldman found that “a group gives a sense of permission, a feeling that you do
have to fight against an accepted standard because others are working outside it
too.” (p. 38)
Wolff often invokes other musical forms as having affected him, but with the
clear recognition that these were somehow outside the community, either his-
torically or collegially—“Western classical music (on much of which I was raised
from an early age), going back to the medieval period, musics of other tradi-
tions—African Ba-Benzele Pygmy, for instance, and some jazz (for example,
Ornette Coleman).”(p. 108) The Coleman reference caused me to speculate on
the political and social contours of an American experimental scene in which
Christian Wolff and Ornette Coleman couldn’t easily come together—as
Coleman and Jacques Derrida did, onstage and in print, in 1997.8

7
Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2011), 6.
8
See Timothy S. Murphy, trans., “The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette
Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Genre 36 (2004): 319–28.
x Fore word

Nonetheless, Wolff continually sought ways to widen the reach and deepen
the political engagement of the communities of ideas and affect of which he was
part. Thus, in the late 1960s, Wolff began making pieces for nonprofessional
Â�musicians. Even though, as Wolff put it, these pieces “contain no overt political
statement” (MS 63), implications of class, and even race, can be seen as embed-
ded in the training in the interpretation of European art music notation. Thus,
the move by Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, Cecil Taylor, Pauline Oliveros, Gavin
Bryars, and others to create scores that could be performed by musicians who
did not undergo such training not only enacted a form of social engagement, but
implicitly and sometimes explicitly, embedded a politics of culture.
And then there was what Terry Riley once called “the big politics in the sky,”
a phrase Riley used in response to a question about whether his music had been
used for political or social ends.9 While the contingent works, for Wolff, repre-
sent “an image and attitude which allow for the possibility of change (for the
better),” (p. 277) by the late 1960s, contemporary music was increasingly
viewed as lacking the tools to foster the kind of change Wolff and many others in
US society were seeking. “A persisting issue for me,” Wolff writes, “became the
relation of political, and social, questions with musical practices that were re-
garded as ‘experimental.’” (p. ix)

I thought about the connections between my emerging political concerns


and my musical work.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›My previous work now seemed to me too eso-
teric.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›W hat I was doing musically seemed mostly inaccessible to people
(including good friends) who were generally speaking music-lovers.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›I
tried to make my work less introverted, less sparse, more of a response to
what a larger number of people might recognize as music. (p. 114)

An analogous ambivalence was eloquently expressed in Amiri Baraka’s influen-


tial 1966 essay, “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music).” As Baraka
notes, “The form content of much of what is called New Thing or Avant-Garde
or New Music differs (or seems to differ) from Rhythm and Blues, R&B oriented
jazz, or what the cat on the block digs.”10 (Baraka 133) This kind of wrestling
with the classic twentieth-century modernist problem of the separation between
art music and popular music was occurring across racial and cultural divides that
were never as separated as earlier histories represented them, even as American
new music was trapped in binary systems of cultural signification—jazz/classical,

9
Quoted in Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966–1973, eds. Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 216.
10
Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),” in Black Music
(New York: William Morrow), 133.
Fore word xi

black/white, and the rest—demonstrated the deep politicization of the period.


Change was on the horizon, musical identities were at stake, and the desire for
change among many composers was ardent and pressing.
Making matters worse was the widespread impression that American experi-
mental music had made little or no impact upon the perceived, increasingly
media-dominated mainstream. Then as now, few Americans had heard the most
radical music that had issued from their native soil, and that very soil was perceived
as being stony ground, supporting a mere handful of what German composer
Walter Zimmermann called, in his collection of interviews with composers,
“desert plants.”11
Frederic Rzewski, a major presence in these pages, was already moving
toward a sharper engagement with these issues, with pieces such as his 1975
classic, The People United Will Never Be Defeated.12 Wolff began his engagement
with the political by working with texts that were political in content or charac-
ter. His early support for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which he later had to
essentially renounce in the light of the many revelations of brutality associated
with the era, resulted in the solo piano work Accompaniments, written for Rzewski
in 1972 with a text taken from Chinese speakers describing their work under the
Revolution.

Now, the politics of Accompaniments has been totally discredited; to


that extent, the piece is finished and I should withdraw it. The things
that were actually going on in those years we’re finally finding out about,
and they were horrendous. I think there are certain principles I found in
the text that I used, which I still believe in, so that part is okay; I will
defend the piece to that extent. (p. 164)

“Accompaniments was a problematical piece, for all my good intentions, and it


raised these issues for me very clearly,” Wolff says now. Even as the composer
realized that “the interesting thing about political music is that its political char-
acter comes and goes” (p. 164), Accompaniments shows that cultural mispri-
sion can nonetheless result in important music.
Wolff ’s continued engagement with the political turned to the contempora-
neous situation in the United States. What we find in his work Rosas (1989–90)
is an epigraphic dedication: “The music is intended also as a tribute to two Rosas,

11
Walter Zimmermann, Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians. (Vancouver:
Aesthetic Research Centre of Canada, 1976). The text of Zimmermann’s interviews is available here:
http://home.snafu.de/walterz/bibliographie.html
12
Hear Frederic Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” in Piano Works, 1975–
1999 (Nonesuch 79623–2, 2002). Compact disc.
xii Fore word

Rosa Luxemburg, and Mrs. Rosa Parks.”13 Wolff ’s politics here are intersection-
ally sensitive to gender as well as race, and the epigraph also features a quote
from Mrs. Parks on her famous 1955 refusal to accede to an Alabama bus driver’s
demand that she give up her seat in favor of a white person, an act that sparked
the US civil rights movement. Her remarks on the matter, as has been noted
before, were a model of gracious understatement, but as quoted by Wolff, seem
also to address notions of agency in experimental music: “I just didn’t feel like
obeying his demand.”14
But what makes Rosas a “political” work? The way in which its musical materi-
als are deployed offers little in the way of direct sonic articulation of a political
text. The politics of these works are emergent from the sound, and there are no
easy prescriptions to be taken away from an encounter with these pieces. Unlike
Rzewski’s piano variations, no ringing manifestoes appear. The Rosas never seem
to exhort, but to persuade, and the main thing being persuaded is not that things
must proceed in such-and-such a way, but a more powerful message—that
things could be different than they are, and that it is up to both musicians and
listeners to create the conditions for change. I found it striking in this context
that Wolff quotes the radical historian George Lipsitz, whose analyses so
often center on music: “Lipsitz, while fully appreciating the view of advanced
capitalism as a monster of cultural cooption and hegemonic control, neverthe-
less comes to the conclusion “that the same global networks of commerce
and  communication that constrain us offer opportunities for cross-cultural
resistance.”15 (p. 204)
“I don’t function very theoretically,” Wolff has observed. “I respond pragmat-
ically to situations.” (p. 150) Theorist Austin Clarkson connects the philo-
sophical tradition of American pragmatism—William James, Charles Sanders
Peirce, John Dewey—with Cage’s compositional practices, and Michael Parsons
directly connects Wolff to that same tradition.16 As I see it, however, it is the
practice of the composer-performer that most directly connects American ex-
perimentalism to American pragmatism. “Our circle also gave us the impetus to
have our pieces performed,” Wolff recalled, “mainly due to Cage, who was always
a performer.” Wolff ’s stories remind us that he, along with Cage, Rzewski, Tudor,

Christian Wolff, Rosas (New York: C.F. Peters, 1990), music score.
13

Ibid.
14

15
See George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place
(London: Verso, 1994), 181.
16
See Austin Clarkson, “The Intent of the Musical Moment: Cage and the Transpersonal,” in
Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, eds. David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch,
62–112 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001). Also see Michael Parsons,
“Foreword,” in Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff, eds. Stephen Chase and Philip
Thomas, xiii-xx (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010).
Fore word xiii

and many others, was part of an international community of composer-performers.


One reads frequently in these pages about how Wolff or his colleagues were
obliged to put a performance together at a moment’s notice, or write a piece with
only a day or two to spare—as in 1957 when Wolff and Rzewski, faced with an
upcoming performance, “didn’t have time to write a fully notated piece,” and so
a pragmatic solution was found:

I just stumbled on this idea. And it worked and we really liked doing it.
Each of us would prepare our parts, but then when we started playing
together, because we had these variable spaces within which to work,
you would respond, almost inevitably, instinctively. And then also con-
sciously you’d be responding to the other player, and in a way other
than normal ensemble playing because you’d hear some thing and you
could either play immediately after it, try to play with it, or wait a little
bit before you play. So there’s a whole range of possibilities there, which
form a kind of improvisatory situation. (p. 148)

Christopher Hookway summarizes Dewey’s method of inquiry in ways that res-


onate with Cageian indeterminacy: “Dewey sees inquiry as beginning with a
problem; we are involved in ‘an indeterminate situation.’” And inquiry aims for
‘the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one
that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert
the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.’”17 However, this tele-
ology, this resolution, is where Cage, Wolff, and other pragmatic indeterminists
depart from Dewey. While experimental music certainly involves inquiry, expe-
rience itself is the only result, and it is distributed, shared, and recursively trans-
formed. Ideally, we remain in the indeterminate state, and inquiry is never-ending.
Perhaps it was this quality of being, if not right in the moment, as close to the
moment as composers might dare to be, that was more salient than the imagined
differences in understandings of form that have been said to differentiate
“American experimentalism” from “European new music.” “Indeterminacy was a
way of producing sounds I could see no other way of producing,” Wolff tells us.
“In that sense it was purely a practical idea.” (p. 46)
Finally, in response to an interviewer’s query into whether teaching classics
fed something into his work as a composer,” Wolff responded, “Not directly, no.
I think the connection is that I’m interested in teaching, in pedagogy.” (p. 146)
While Wolff has tended to keep the two spheres separate throughout his long

17
Christopher Hookway, “Pragmatism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016
Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/pragmatism/,
accessed May 28, 2016.
xiv Fore word

career, a 2010 article, “Crossings of Experimental Music and Greek Tragedy”


(chapter 47), partially recants that earlier separation, through an analysis of the
involvement with Greek texts and drama by Milhaud, Satie, Partch, and Xenakis.
The example of the 2010 text tempts me to compare Wolff ’s enumeration in
these pages of the important qualities John Cage represented to him with Philo
of Alexandria’s lists of the spiritual exercises of ancient Greek philosophy of the
Platonic and Stoic periods, as recounted by the philosopher Pierre Hadot. Philo’s
first list includes research (zetesis), thorough investigation (skepsis), reading (an-
agnosis), listening (akroasis), attention (prosoche), self-mastery (enkrateia), and
indifference to indifferent things. His second list points up reading, meditations
(meletai), therapies of the passions, remembrance of good things, and the ac-
complishment of duties.18
Wolff ’s register of Cage’s qualities includes:

experiment—keep trying new things, change, extend your invention;


discipline—a form of letting go of the self, working systematically and
hard; attentiveness—regard everything alertly, use your intelligence;
make music as your life in the world, which also entails thinking about
and (in ways you find possible) acting socially and politically in a prin-
cipled way (he’d say, act with conscience);
comedy, not tragedy. (p. 313)

And finally, Cage and Wolff exhort us to “listen to everything—in his music the
wonderful empty spaces, and the extreme quantities of sound and activity layers;
elegance.” (p. 313)

Works Cited
Austin, Larry and Douglas Kahn, ed. Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966–1973. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2011.
Behrman, David. “What Indeterminate Notation Determines.” Perspectives of New Music 3, no. 2
(1965): 58–73
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002.
Clarkson, Austin. “The Intent of the Musical Moment: Cage and the Transpersonal.” In Writings
Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher
Hatch, 62–112. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Hadot, Pierre. “Spiritual Exercises.” In Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates
to Foucault, edited by Arnold I. Davidson, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995, 81–125.
Hicks, Michael and Christian Asplund. Christian Wolff. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Pierre Hadot, “Spiritual Exercises,” in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from
18

Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), 84.


Fore word xv

Hicks, Michael. “‘Our Webern’: Cage and Feldman’s Devotion to Christian Wolff.” In Changing the
System: The Music of Christian Wolff, edited by Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, 3–22.
Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
Hookway, Christopher. “Pragmatism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016
Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/
pragmatism/, accessed May 28, 2016.
Jones, Leroi (Amiri Baraka). “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),” 180–211. Black
Music. New York: William Morrow.
Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place.
London: Verso, 1994.
Murphy, Timothy S., trans. “The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman,
23 June 1997.” Genre 36 (2004): 319–28.
Parsons, Michael. “Foreword.” In Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff, edited by
Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, xiii–xx. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
Piekut, Benjamin. Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2011.
Rzewski, Frederic. “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Piano Works, 1975–1999,
Nonesuch 79623–2, 2002. Compact disc.
Wolff, Christian. For 1, 2, or 3 People. New York, London, Frankfurt, Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1964.
Music score.
Wolff, Christian. Rosas. New York: C. F. Peters, 1990. Music score.
Zimmermann, Walter. Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians. Vancouver:
Aesthetic Research Centre of Canada, 1976. Text available at http://home.snafu.de/walterz/
bibliographie.html.

George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University.
A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Lewis’s other honors include a MacArthur
Fellowship (2002) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015). A member of the Association for
the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis’s creative work has been
presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Radio-
Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, International Contemporary Ensemble, and others, and he has per-
formed as electronic musician and trombonist with many of the figures discussed in these writings,
including David Behrman, Frederic Rzewski, Merce Cunningham, Pauline Oliveros, and Wolff
himself. His widely acclaimed book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American
Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) received the American Book Award and
the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award. Lewis and Benjamin
Piekut are the co-editors of the Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016).
A u t h o r’ s P r e f a c e

The writings that follow are “occasional” because all were written in response to
requests. Of course they also represent what I was thinking about music—my
own and others—at various times. I’ve been writing for a long time, so quite a lot
of ground is covered and there are changes.
Of the earliest pieces, the first was part of a gathering of statements solicited
by John Cage back in 1951, from the composers whom he saw, along with him-
self, as breaking new ground: Pierre Boulez, Morton Feldman, and myself. This
appeared in an ephemeral publication, trans/formation (three issues only) sur-
veying new thinking in the arts and sciences. Characteristically, our music pre-
sented itself in a wider cultural context. Other early pieces appeared in the
Cologne-based organ of the European avant-garde at the time (mid 1950s on),
Die Reihe, in an Italian arts journal and in a literary journal in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. The first piece to appear in a standard musical publication, the
English journal Music and Musicians, was an interview, in 1969.
These writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of often alternative
publications, and they present musical ideas that have alternative directions,
which is why they came to be written: to attempt to explain and account for new
ways of making and thinking about music. I became involved in this at an early
age, partly by luck, meeting John Cage, and by circumstance, living in New York,
which made available much of the world of modern art, though not at the time
much in the way of new music, except as performances might occasionally be
organized by Cage, along with dance performances by Merce Cunningham with
Cage’s music.
The driving force of the music of Cage, Feldman, and myself at the time was
an effort to reconstitute what one might think of as music. Why? Well, because
we just wanted to. But also because we experienced the musical/compositional
landscape around us as bleak, lacking in adventure, and tired, recycling neoclas-
sicism (Stravinsky) and the older serialism (Schoenberg). We felt the need to do
xvii
xviii Author ’s P refac e

something else. For Cage, this meant introducing chance procedures into the
way he composed; for Feldman, developing a refined poetic sensibility that drew
on the early music of Webern, and inventing new techniques of indeterminacy;
for me, working with extreme forms of minimalism and recasting how one
thought of a musical texture. Earle Brown, who came to New York in 1952, de-
veloped the first graphic ways of scoring a kind of purely open composition, to
be realized improvisationally. I think it was Cage who first called what we were
doing “experimental.” This term was not used by such European composers as
Boulez and Stockhausen, who did not like its tentative sound; they were making
“new music.”
The earlier pieces in this collection mostly report on what was going on and
offer some analytical account of the music, both my own and others’. While
I  have always thought of my compositional work as distinctively my own—
why else would I do it?—I have also seen it in connection with a community of
the work of others. So there are writings about John Cage, my one and only
teacher (for only a brief time), then lifelong friend and supporter, Morton
Feldman, Earle Brown, David Tudor, Frederic Rzewski, and Cornelius Cardew,
also about Keith Rowe, Dieter Schnebel, Eddie Prevost, Arthur Russell, Pauline
Oliveros, Luigi Nono, and Robyn Schulkowsky. And there is the dancer Merce
Cunningham, whom I met in 1950 shortly after meeting Cage. I first saw his
work that year and ever since it has captivated me and affected my own.
Apart from my immediate musical associates and friends, I have always been
aware of, and in some cases very close to, a great deal of other music, old and new.
In these writings there are also some accounts of Webern, Ives, Satie, and Xenakis.
This book consists partly of selections from an earlier book, Cues: Writings and
Conversations, published in 1998 by MusikTexte in an English-German edition.
Most of what I have written since, and one subsequent interview, have now been
added. Unlike Cues, the present collection is chronological. Since everything that
I have written or said was for a particular occasion or request, and not produced
with a book in mind, there are inevitably some repetitions; but the chronological
order may help chart some shifts and changes in my thinking over time.
For many years, apart from working as a composer, I have had academic em-
ployment, at first teaching classics, later teaching comparative literature and
music as well. My writings relating to classics, mostly on Euripides, are of course
not included here, except for one piece about connections between experimen-
tal music and Greek tragedy (I took particular pleasure in being able to write
something about Satie and about Xenakis).
In the late 1960s the landscape of new music changed. The minimalism of
Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich appeared in strong, and for me wel-
come, contrast to a prevailing hyper-complex music. Shortly after, political
issues began to engage a number of composers, myself included. Both these
A uthor ’s P re fac e xix

�
developments affected my own music and thinking about music. (There is an
overview in chapter 12, “On Political Texts and New Music.”) Questions about
the “politics” of what I, and others, were doing musically, are taken up in a
number of pieces starting in the later 1970s. A persisting issue for me became the
relation of political and social questions with musical practices that were
Â�regarded as “experimental.” And what did it mean, after the first energetically
Â�exploratory 1950s and 1960s, to do “experimental music”?
More specific subjects come up: in two responses to questions about musical
notation—I have since the later 1950s devised various alternative notations for
representing indeterminate musical actions. And, though exposed to John Cage’s
percussion music since the 1950s, I did not become much involved with the use
of percussion until the 1990s. Thinking about this musical resource, which only
begins to be important in the twentieth century, appears in the text of a talk
given at a meeting of the Percussive Arts Society, in the piece about Greek trag-
edy and experimental music, and the liner notes for Robyn Schulkowsky’s com-
position Armadillo.
Over the years, musical friends and associates have died; there are five memo-
rial texts.
My notion now of what music is about has to do primarily with its realization,
that is, performance. Music is about social interaction. It begins with the com-
poser imagining and devising something for performers to engage with, then
present to listeners. As a composer I regard my primary responsibility to be
making material that is useful and interesting for the performers to work on. Of
course I would like listeners to be moved by a performance, but I don’t want to
force that process. I believe, for the music to really come alive, and to be sociable,
the listeners need to take part too, to listen actively, be more than passive recipi-
ents. Overall, these writings chart my way, both practically (musical procedures)
and through ideas, to these conclusions.
My musical life, and so this book, could not have happened without the sup-
port, example, and instruction of all of my family, fellow musicians, and friends.
There are too many to name here (quite a few turn up in the following texts): for
all, my heartfelt appreciation and thanks. I want also to thank Gisela Gronemeyer,
who, with her late partner, Reinhard Oelschlägel, conceived and devotedly put
together this book’s predecessor. And now, warm thanks to Suzanne Ryan of
Oxford University Press for taking up so readily and generously my proposal for
this successor.
Acknowledgments
Chapters 1–31, 33–34 previously appeared in Cues/Hinweise, © Edition MusicTexte, 1998. Used
by permission.
xx Author ’s P refac e

Chapter 43 previously appeared in Artforum, April 2009, “Figure Among Motifs,” by Rhys
Chatham and Christian Wolff. Used by permission.
Chapter 44 previously appeared in John Leley and James Saunders, Word Events: Perspecives on
Verbal Notations, Bloomsbury Continuum US, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.,
2012. Used by permission.
Chapter 45 previously appeared in American Music 27, no 4, 2009. Used by permission.
Chapter 46 previously appeared in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimntal Music, ed.
James Saunders, Ashgate. Used by permission.
Chapter 50 previously published in Cine Qua Non #6, 2012. Used by permission.
Occasional Pieces
1

(One of) Four Musicians at Work (1952)

Serenade for flute, clarinet, violin, mm. 91–2.

I
Making music within small areas of pitches (3, 4, 5, 8, or 9 pitches have been
used for individual pieces): The idea that simultaneous combinations of pitches,
likewise overlapping combinations of pitches result in one “sound.”
For instance, (a combination of two pitches) = a sound, (overlapping
pitches) = a sound. Sounds of greater complexity are also possible, for

example .

A piece is then made with a gamut of these sounds, both simple and complex.
Duration, timbre, and amplitude are free.

II
Making music in a structure that fixes sounds in a preconceived space without
regard for linear continuity. (The nature of the sounds: simple and complex as in pre-
vious situation; amplitude, timbre, and duration are static or fixed, however.) A struc-
ture is made with a number of measures having a square root. The structure is then

3
4 occasional pieces

planned within a square of these measures. A pattern


1 2 3 4 5
or series of patterns is superimposed on the square.
In the above, this pattern is a smaller square of 6 7 8 9 10
nine measures. Four of these patterns overlapping at
11 12 13 14 15
the edges fill up the area of this particular piece. The
�individual structures are then filled in with sounds. 16 17 18 19 20
The order in which the measures are composed
21 22 23 24 25
may vary.

III
Making music with combined gamuts of timbre, pitch, amplitude, and duration.
Structure as described in II. Pitch gamuts as described in I. Gamuts of timbre are
made with combinations of varying numbers of instruments (for instance, flute,
violin; flute, violin, cello). Gamuts of amplitude are made with varying numbers
and combinations of dynamics.

Gamuts of duration are made in the same way.

These gamuts are combined by choice and necessity. For instance, if the
choice is first made from the timbre gamut and calls for a flute, the choices of
pitch, duration, and amplitude are necessarily confined. If the duration gamut is
used and a combination of three durations is chosen, a timbre combination of
three instruments must be chosen. However, the number of pitches or amplitudes
(O ne o f ) Four Mu s icians at Work ( 1952) 5

in a combination can vary from one to three, though the particular pitches are
confined by the ranges of the instruments chosen.

These notes were written at the request of John Cage, along with comments on their workby
Feldman, Boulez, and Cage, and published under the title, “4 musicians at work” in trans/
formation I/3, New York, 1952.
2

On Webern (1955)

To write about Webern in 1955 seems unnecessary (let us continue to hear


him). But, while expressing my all but unbounded admiration and love for the
music of Webern, I shall indicate a certain distance in my (present and variable)
position from that music and its implications. Where admirable, the music is
wire-strong and tenuous, thin and concentrated, and very delicate. It is ex-
pressive only of itself: hence, it may extend and penetrate infinitely; it need
have  no extra-musical (historical, literary, psychological, dramatic) reference,
even in the earlier works where expressiveness is more obviously active, for
there it is—before the use of contrapuntal and serial continuity—a function of
structure.
The music may involve a kind of dialectic between serial and contrapuntal
continuity (which is linear) and extra-serial configurations (which are often spa-
tial). The former is minutely controlled, the latter free, unrationalized, perhaps
not precisely conscious.
So in the second movement of the Piano Variations opus 27, the procedure of
the cycles of twelve tones in pairs describes a two-part canon, a linear continuity.
Simultaneously, a static texture of sound is made by the repetition of pitch
groupings. The notes cross-referenced by repetition originate at “irrational,” dis-
continuous points of the row sequences and of the contrapuntal logic. A nonlin-
ear, spatial configuration breaks out of, and is co-existent with, the linear conti-
nuity described by the row and canonic procedure.
For instance, the pitch group in measure 1 is re-
peated in measures 9, 13, and 19 (always piano and
staccato), a fixed point; but it also exists succes-
sively as the second pitch of Row IX and Inversion
VII, the ninth of Row II and Inversion II, the
fourth of Row VII and Inversion IX, the fifth of
Row IV and Inversion XII. And five other pitch-
groups are similarly repeated, leaving just eleven
of a total of thirty-one pitch groups unrepeated.

7
8 occasional pieces

Compare the beginning of the First Cantata opus 29, the first and seventh
measures:

Ri = Basic series form 1 Ii = Inversion form 1, et cetera

or, closer repetitions of notes (hence making less a spatial configuration than
a kind of more or less linear melody, which, unrationalized in origin, disengages
itself from the serial and contrapuntal continuities), from the first movement of
the Symphony opus 21, measures 3 to 7:

The similar dialectic between linear timbre (that is the continuity of one
timbre) and the spatial continuity (defined by serial and contrapuntal succes-
sion) of timbre (that is continually changing timbre, Klangfarbenmelodie) needs
no examples (the Symphony, for instance, is rich in them). Here, unlike the in-
stance of pitches, the control is most specifically on the spatial aspects of the
sound, the linear timbre being less precisely rationalized.
For dynamics one may note the alternation (I know of no simultaneous use) of
linear or progressive amplitude (an extension of sound generally defined by a con-
stant, increasing, or decreasing dynamic: often very close to drama, as in the Piano
Variations, part III, measures 43–55 climax—and the final pianissimo measures
following) and the continual and discrete shifts of dynamics whose essential qual-
ity is fixity in space (so, for instance, the second movement of the Piano Variations
in which only fortissimo, forte and piano appear changed for every pitch group).
Of durations, generally: they make at once a discontinuity and fluidity, a
�texture at once crystalline and moving. Rhythm, as an antiphony of sound and
O n Weber n ( 1955) 9

silence, forms a texture whose inner structure is spatial, which is multidimen-


sional. On the other hand, blocks of rhythmic texture may dominate (due mostly
to the contrapuntal procedure), extending an event in time rather than isolating
it in space. The early works and parts of the Second Cantata opus 31, where there
are sharply defined, not successively repeated, single events rather than extended
textures, are notable exceptions.
Such is an outstanding quality in the structure of Webern’s music: the simul-
taneous action—so clearly expressed—of the linear and the spatial, the logical
and the spontaneous: controlled movement around randomly fixed points. And
focused is the perception of the (inevitable) combination of continuity (auto-
matically created by time as it passes) and immobility (perhaps the grand illu-
sion of music, the re-forming of time).
My own position now differs in that linear sequences need not be logical, can
be accidental (since continuity has to be), while spatial configurations tend to be
calculated, made more or less specifically possible. A total structure generally
static is defined and events are spaced in it, while the linear sequence is made in
performance and in time: and here no correspondence to intentions is necessary.
With Webern one has come to notice that music is sound and silence, and
that sound is pitch, duration, amplitude, and timbre. Webern controls pitch
�minutely in linear serial systems; and one may also extrapolate a suggestion
of  serial composition extended to duration, timbre, and perhaps amplitude
(as  Stockhausen’s analysis of the first movement of the Concerto for Nine
Instruments has shown). Thus, the awareness of the total actual elements of music
has now produced the intention for a total application of the serial idea, a kind of
total control of the musical material. This implication I do not see as necessary in
the quality (at its best) of Webern’s music. That quality, as suggested above, is
more pertinently referred to the interaction of the linear and the spatial, of the
rationalized and unrationalized. The serial idea is not here excluded, but it is not
indispensable.
Further, the total application of the serial idea may lead to excessively theoret-
ical preoccupations, while the ultimate point of reference remains sound and
Â�silence (referring—subjectively, to be sure—to the actual sound of, say, the first
movement of the Concerto for Nine Instruments, I do not find it especially good:
the outline of the row’s intervals and the incessant groupings of three are monot-
onously transparent; the incalculable seems lacking; and the balance in total
timbre between the piano and the other eight instruments appears off—contrast
the Piano Quartet, opus 22). The use of total serial control may introduce an
�irrelevant complexity. There is rather an inevitable natural complexity in things
(compare the structure of a tree); and it cannot finally be precisely indicated or
controlled or isolated. To insist on determining it totally is to make a dead object.
The spatial element is unpredictably flexible (though one may decide to calculate
10 occasional pieces

particular segments) and comes to life only when activated by outside (indeter-
minable) interferences. The complete control of a work, were it possible at all,
would render it utterly impenetrable, put an end to its life.

Written in 1955 at the request of Karlheinz Stockhausen and first published in die Reihe 2, Vienna:
Universal Edition, 1958.
3

New and Electronic Music (1958)

What is, or seems to be, new in this music? Roughly, since 1950, in the works of
the Americans John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, the German Karlheinz
Stockhausen, the French Pierre Boulez, the Swedish Bo Nilsson, the Belgian
Henri Pousseur, and the French-American Edgard Varèse, one finds a concern
for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity—sound come into its own. The
“music” is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by
expressions of self or personality. It is indifferent in motive, originating in no psy-
chology or in dramatic intentions, or in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least
some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and
taste. But this need not make their work “abstract,” for nothing, in the end, is
denied. It is simply that personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like are
not part of the composer’s initial calculation: they are at best gratuitous.
The procedure of composing tends to be radical, going directly to the sounds
and their characteristics, to the way in which they are produced and how they are
notated. John Cage scores amplitude for a stringed instrument, not as piano or
mezzo forte, but by the amount of pressure, graphically represented, with which
the bow is to pass over the strings. Stockhausen defines legato—continuous
sounding—and speed on a wind instrument by requiring a given number of
notes to be played on a single, continuous breath, or speed and phrasing on a
keyboard by the distances the hand has to travel on it. The composer may take
into account the places sounds are heard in, the directions from which they are
heard, what one can actually hear (statistically or physiologically), and the
nature of performers and their actions.
There are, in fact, elements here that have been called “traditional”—the
desire for, or better, the condition of objectivity, the indifference to “a worldly
matter of ‘taste’,” the “treatment of the material usedâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›in conformity with the
nature of that material” (the phrases are Frithjof Schuon’s). The Europeans
Boulez and Stockhausen are thoroughly self-conscious about musical history;
the first directs a carefully programmed “world” of music; Stockhausen speaks of
“the work to be done,” the “right way” to be laid down and followed. Both have a

11
12 occasional pieces

constructive and methodical bias. Among the Americans, on the other hand,
there is a greater freedom and intransigence, simplification and disruption, a
“cleaning the ears out,” as Alan Watts has said.
This music, then, both new and traditional, is often where limits meet and con-
verge. There is great extravagance, in complexity of notation, density of events,
exploitation of an instrument’s ranges, for example; and extravagances of restraint.
Feldman has a series of pieces all dynamically marked “as soft as possible”; I have
used just three pitches in an entire piece; and Cage has a piece that is only silence.
There are moments of the greatest commotion and excitement, as in Stockhausen’s
Klavierstück XI, and of utter stillness and repose, in works of Feldman and Cage.
Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage (in his Music of Changes), and Brown (in his Indices)
indicate the greatest detail of specification, the most elaborate instructions to the
performer. Pousseur (in his Exercices de piano), Stockhausen, Cage, Feldman, and
Brown have, on the other hand, also left free a gamut of degrees of indeterminacy
whose specification is entirely in the performers’ hands.
Why is this so? Both control (a more or less high degree of organization) and
freedom (a making possible of indeterminacy) may be disinterested means of
making music. But there are some differences.
In going to the nature of sound, Stockhausen’s procedure is methodical. Only
after research on acoustical phenomena and their reception, and the formulation
of theory, it seems, is a piece composed, whose tendency is to be organized in
accordance with the theoretical nature of the piece’s material. But there may be
a margin of error between the conception and the realization of a piece (as in the
electronic Studie II); the theory, no matter how “correct,” may not accommodate
all eventualities.
For Cage, on the other hand, the only criteria, are precisely all eventualities.
Though there are the same inevitable stages—ideas at the time of writing, ac-
tions at the time of performance, sounds at the time of listening, yet no neces-
sary relationships between these stages are insisted upon. The ideas may have
been clear, practical, muddled, complex, the actions of performance accurate,
decisive, ineffectual, but there will always be sounds to listen to. While intention
or conception may generate sounds, they neither measure nor are measured by
them necessarily. The sounds while they last are final and there is no separating
from them a score for purposes of comparison. If a score indicates the note A to
be played and the performer, for one reason or another, hits B instead, the exist-
ence at that moment of the pitch B gives no measure of the score nor is measured
by it (though the B might not have occurred had there been no score). But the
existence of the B is, in this view, compellingly real. To call it a “mistake” is beside
the point (is meeting someone by chance, is a meteor a mistake?). Nor does this
suggest simply a letting go—that the performer play any pitch he pleases when
he is asked to play A. A measure of good will is assumed.
New and El ec tronic Mus i c ( 1958) 13

So too the absence of dichotomy characterizes Cage’s attitude toward the


sounds of a piece and whatever other sounds happen to be simultaneously going
on. No boundary between the two is imposed. The “work of art” is not presented
as though it existed in an ideal and privileged isolation but is simply allowed to
take its place among other “transient phenomena.” This view Cage calls “realis-
tic”: eventualities, intended (the work) or not (noises in the street, the rattle of a
door, crickets), are all acceptable: can they be denied?
Here the nature of sound as it is actually heard is inseparable from any “com-
position.” While this also generally holds for Stockhausen, yet his analyses of the
nature of sound and its production, and the score that implements them are
made separable criteria, measures of the final sound. That sound would be fore-
seen and subject to “mistakes” and wrong notes; there is nothing experimental
about it. A piece of Stockhausen’s is fully self-contained, and at least implicitly in
conflict with its acoustical environment—unintended sounds. It is an imposing
thing; often dense and involved, deliberately made and complex.
Thus, in the views of indeterminacy, there are also differences. Stockhausen
and Pousseur are concerned with probabilities. They draw circles, so to speak,
around a group of elements—for example, those having to do with duration or
succession in time—and define by the sizes of the circles a range of possible re-
sults; that is, aspects of a piece are given more or less general characterizations
statistically defined. The system is, in the end, closed. And marking out probabil-
ities is actually a refinement of organization.
Cage, Feldman, and Brown’s use of chance is concerned rather with the im-
probable and unpredictable, less with a more generalized control of the musical
result than with a more specific generating of incalculability.
Further, the use of chance procedures is not only introduced at the point of a
piece’s performance, as in Stockhausen, Pousseur, or Feldman, but also at the piece’s
composition. The fully and precisely detailed score of Cage’s Music of Changes is
the final product of a number of chance operations, and so too Brown’s Indices.
In the first, for example, charts are made up of sounds—noises, as available on
a piano, or pitches and these are taken singly or in conglomerates (chords, tremo-
los, flourishes); of durations; of dynamics; of tempi; and of superpositions (the
number of possible series of events going on simultaneously within a given struc-
tural length: from zero to eight). Tossing coins then (according to a procedure
described in the I Ching or Book of Changes) gives numbers from one to sixty-four,
which are indices for the charts, each chart having sixty-four elements. A number
of tosses determines the combinations of the various elements on the various
charts: how many superpositions; at what tempo; what particular durations;
whether a duration be expressed by a silence or a sound; what sound; at what dy-
namic. And chance determines whether an element on one of the charts of
sounds, durations, or dynamics, when once used, will be available for further use
14 occasional pieces

or will “change,” that is, be crossed off and replaced by a newly made element. The
outlines of the piece’s structure, however, are planned at the start (like the ele-
ments on the charts) and not left to chance (as the configurations of the elements
are); though these outlines are space lengths—a number of measures—whose
time lengths are in turn dependent on the chance-determined tempi.
In Cage’s Music for Piano, finally, there are large areas of indeterminacy in re-
spect both to composition and performance. Only pitches or noises and their
relative place in space are notated for the performer. One arrives at these by
marking the imperfections that happen to be on a blank sheet of paper. Chance
determines how many and which markings will be used. Staves drawn on a
second, transparent piece of paper are placed over the marked sheet. Each stave
is provided with a treble or bass clef, as determined by chance. The pitches are
thus located, within the range limits of the staves plus a maximum number of
ledger lines (extensions of the staves to cover the piano’s range of pitches), and
are further specified, randomly, as normal, sharp, or flat. The markings that fall
outside the ledger line ranges and between the two staves of a system locate
noises. And the pitches may have the further notation, by chance, of muting
(with the fingers on the pitch’s string) or plucking.
How, generally, is the electronic music made? Thus far, in two ways, that may
be combined or not.
First, synthetically, that is, all sounds are electronically generated and com-
posed from the start. Any sound, from tone to noise, is analyzable into its sim-
plest measurable components, sine wave frequencies (pure tones). Here the
�reverse process takes place: a sound is made up by scoring its structure, the con-
figuration of all its measurable components. Composition starts with an abso-
lute minimum of “givens,” and can be microcosmic as it has never been before.
Second, electronic music is made reproductively, that is, any existing sounds
(violin, conversation, oscillator, glass breaking, frogs) are recorded on magnetic
tape and thus made available to any compositional action, which in turn may
involve changing and reforming any aspects of the sounds.
Durations and superpositions are, generally, managed in the same way in
both cases. The duration of a sound is realized by the measurement of a length of
the tape on which the sound has been recorded (though some aspects of dura-
tion, such as the speed of impulses or the speed of changing frequencies in a
sliding sound—as in glissandi on stringed instruments—would be produced di-
rectly by a generating source). For silence or the separation of sounds there is
blank tape. The various lengths are successively spliced together. Superpositions
are made by the simultaneous recording of two or more tapes.
In either way of making this music there is, thus far, no “performance,” as no
instruments are involved, other than the various sound generators that produce
pure frequencies, white noise, impulses, or random noise, and the mechanical
New and El ec tronic Mus i c ( 1958) 15

means that alter the character of given sounds, for example by filtering, distort-
ing, reverberating. The only final realization is a record or tape or series of tapes
(in stereophonic presentation).
Some would insist on the use of the first procedure only. The elements of
sound being fully measurable and thus, in theory at least, fully controllable, com-
position could be uniquely extended. Beginning with the most irreducible as-
pects of sound, one might “rationalize” completely a piece’s structure, measuring
everything possible according to—perhaps—a single organizational principle
(one series of numerical proportions, for example). But there are, in fact, limita-
tions here; for the technical means for realizing sounds, or ideas of sounds, of
some complexity are often confined and clumsy or not yet available.
The second procedure, although less “thorough,” allows for more immedi-
ately available complexities, especially of timbre—“complexities” often when
considered only in terms of analytical measurements as we now make them. The
sound itself may be quite ordinary (the rustling of paper), but extraordinarily
complex in terms of precise acoustical definition and, under present technical
conditions, exceedingly difficult to constitute synthetically.
But in either case, one is in a thoroughly radical situation, barring concern
with analogies to, or imitations of, conventional non-electronic procedures,
such as counterpoint, twelve-tone organization, and so on.
The actual number of electronic pieces is not large. One might mention two,
Cage’s Williams Mix and Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. The first is notable
for the great range of its sound sources, including city sounds, country sounds,
electronic or synthetic sounds, manual sounds (the snap of fingers, for exam-
ple), vocal or wind sounds, and “small” sounds—sounds needing amplification
to be made audible, such as an ant walking on a piece of paper; and these may be
fragmented, a length of the tape of a sound cut into small bits, which, scattered
and rearranged, are stuck back on another (otherwise blank) tape; and a sound
tape may be cut at either end, not only vertically but also at all possible angles,
which alters in all degrees the character of a sound’s attack and decay. Finally,
there are up to eight possible superpositions or simultaneous sound events. The
sounds, recognizable as their sources may remain (for example, a boat whistle), are
not composed with a view to their specific evocative effects. They are presented,
long, quick, blatantly clear, all but unrecognizable, ambiguous, fragmented
beyond recognition, unheard of, simply as sounds in a number of combinations.
Gesang der Jünglinge is notable for the range and complexity of its timbres,
achieved almost entirely by purely synthetic means, using only electronic sound
sources, with the exception of a boy’s voice, which itself, once recorded, is sub-
ject to many mechanical transformations. The electronic sounds are taken in
eleven “elemental” aspects, that is, each aspect is such that it cannot be further
subdivided into audibly different kinds of sound. All the material of the piece,
16 occasional pieces

including the boy’s voice and the letters of the words he sings (they can be
�permutated, making a continuum from pure vocal sounds to recognizable
“sense”), is uniformly rationalized, that is, made available to strictly analogous, if
not identical, means of organization (for example permutations of irreducible
elements). Conversely, however, the choice of the material is dictated by consid-
erations of its possible total homogeneity and the fact that all its aspects could be
controlled.
Both pieces, then, are intended for performances on, respectively, eight and
six variously located loudspeakers. Thus, the dimension of spacing, the stereo-
phonic presentation of sound, may provide still another compositional aspect to
a piece. A given sound may come from any location in space, from any combina-
tion of locations, may move from one location to another, continuously or dis-
cretely. Nor is spatial disposition unknown to instrumental music: as in early
antiphonal music, Henry Brant, Stockhausen in his piece for three variously
placed orchestras, and Cage and others in their pieces for three and four pianos
placed in different parts of a concert hall.
As for the electronic music generally, it has brought about, or was coincident
with, a self-consciousness about the nature of sound, its production and percep-
tion, that has rarely been equaled. The radical way of making this music, and
the range of possibilities involved, make it attractive to work with. Yet it is not a
question of no longer writing instrumental music. There are simply more possi-
bilities available. Boulez speaks primarily of combining electronic and instru-
mental activity. Varèse has written a work, Déserts, which uses both, though only
in alternation.
Stockhausen transfers many ideas realized in working with electronic means
to his instrumental works, and recently seems interested rather in a new instru-
ment of electronic construction, with the attending range of possibilities, but
also subjected to the actions of a performer. The evident limitation of electronic
music is here focused: its recorded and flat character, the exclusion of the factor
of performance with its natural complexities, hazards and loose screws—for
“vulnerability,” Simone Weil says, is “a mark of existence.”
Notable qualities of this music, whether electronic or not, are monotony and
the irritation that accompanies it. The monotony may lie in simplicity or deli-
cacy, strength or complexity. Complexity tends to reach a point of neutraliza-
tion: continuous change results in a certain sameness. The music has a static
character. It goes in no particular direction. There is no necessary concern with
time as a measure of distance from a point in the past to a point in the future,
with linear continuity alone. It is not a question of getting anywhere, of making
progress, or having come from anywhere in particular, of tradition or futurism.
There is neither nostalgia nor anticipation. Often the structure of a piece is circu-
lar: the succession of its parts is variable, as in Pousseur’s Exercices de piano and
New and El ec tronic Mus i c ( 1958) 17

Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI. In Cage’s recent work, the notation itself can be
circular, the succession of notes on a stave not necessarily indicating their se-
quence in time, that is, the order in which they are performed. One may have to
read notes on a circle, in two “voices” going in opposite directions simultane-
ously. An aspect of time dissolves. And the Europeans often view organization as
“global,” whereby beginnings and ends are not points on a line but limits of a
piece’s material (for example, pitch ranges or possible combinations of timbres)
that may be touched at any time during the piece. The boundaries of the piece
are expressed, not at moments of time that mark a succession, but as margins of
a spatial projection of the total structure.
As for the quality of irritation, that is a more subjective matter. One might say
that it is at least preferable to soothing, edifying, exalting, and similar qualities.
Its source is, of course, precisely in monotony, not in any forms of aggression or
emphasis. It is the immobility in motion. And it alone, perhaps, is truly moving.

Written in 1957 at the request of the editor of New Directions, who turned down a first version
of it. The poet Ruth Whitman encouraged a rewriting and had it published in Audience
V/3, Summer 1958.
4

On Form (1960)

Form in music could be taken as a length of program time.


This is clearest in the work of John Cage in the last four or five years. No dis-
tinction is made between the sounds of a “work” and sounds in general, prior to,
simultaneous with, or following the work. Art—music—and nature are not
thought of as separated. Music is allowed no privileges over sound. Yet the work
is quite distinct. It can be timed and tends to use sounds not always generally
heard and in combinations not generally common. But its distinctiveness im-
plies no exclusiveness. The work tends to be at once itself and quite perspicuous
(compare painting on glass and constellations).
A piece as it starts and stops is indicated by the actions of its performers (even
when no sounds are scored at all). Form is a theatrical event of a certain length,
and the length itself may be unpredictable.
At one remove from the event the form of a piece is reduced to a score, in-
structions for performers. It is a question of what should go on for how long, a
matter of boundaries before an event: boundaries that the event tends to annihi-
late or obscure.
Take, for example, what John Cage found long ago and called a rhythmic
structure: a sequence of proportions that fix time lengths and are expressed
both in small for phrases (for example 2, 5, ¼, 1, 3, 11, 2½ seconds) and in large
for the parts of the total structure of a piece (thus seven sections 49½, 123¾,
6  3 16 , 74¼, 272¼ and 61⅞ seconds long, that is, 2x (2+5+¼+1+3+11+2½); 5x
(2+5+¼+1+3+11+2½); et cetera). The sum of the phrase lengths, 24¾, is,
then, the square root of the total length of the piece, 612 9 16 seconds. A frame
subdivided according to proportions chosen either deliberately or at random, in
any case arbitrary as frame, is taken as given. Any criteria for characterizing its
subdivisions are possible.
This sequence of lengths may be multiplied through to make a square like the
following:

19
20 occasional pieces

4 10 ½ 2 6 22 5 (2x2, 2x5, 2x¼, 2x1 et cetera)


10 25 1¼ 5 15 55 12½
½ 1¼ 1 16 ¼ ¾ 2¾ ⅝
2 5 ¼ 1 3 44 2½
6 15 ¾ 3 9 33 7½
22 55 2¾ 11 33 121 27½
5 12½ ⅝ 2½ 7½ 27½ 6¼

(The square as it stands has certain properties, for instance, the possibility of
a unique series of lengths on the diagonal from the upper left hand corner to
lower right, that is, from beginning through center to end—4, 25, 116 , 1, 9, 121,
6¼—and the symmetrical spacing of one repetition of each of the remaining
lengths—thus the horizontal sequence beginning with 4 = the vertical column
beginning with 4; the horizontal sequence beginning with 10 = the vertical
column beginning with 10; et cetera.)
To begin to define these subdivisions of lengths, one might next take a
second square having a number of elements (subdivisions) equivalent to the
first, namely forty-nine. On this second square continuities—in space, discon-
tinuous from a linear point of view—can be indicated by recurrent “moves.”
For example:

3c

1a 2b

4c 3b

2a

4b
3a
1c

4a
2c
1b
O n For m ( 1960) 21

There are three continuities here—a, b, c—of four elements each (1–4).
Each continuity makes the same move, which can be described as: 1: (1a starts
anywhere); 2: two spaces down from 1 and one over to the right; 3: one down
from 2; 4: two down from 3 and four to the right. The second and third continu-
ities (b, c) repeat the move overlapping at the beginning, that is, 1b starts in the
same space as 4a, 1c as 4b. Since the square in its two dimensions can’t accom-
modate all moves thus repeated, its limits at top, bottom, and sides are consid-
ered continuous, bottom to top and side to side. Thus, the first part of the move
(two spaces down and one over to the right) in the second continuity (b), from
1b to 2b, must proceed to the top of its vertical column and from there move
down two spaces and then over to the right. Similarly, from 3b to 4b one can go
down two (as from 3a to 4a), but must then go to the other side of the horizontal
line of spaces in order to move four to the right.
The three continuities made on one move can be characterized in any number
of ways, that is, can be used as references to whatever aspects of sound one
wishes to compose. And while characterizing them individually, one may also
indicate that they all belong to one move by criteria applicable to all of them to-
gether. For example, if they are differentiated by having each a particular pitch
gamut, they may be related by sharing a common tempo, timbre, or dynamic
configuration.
A whole structure would have a number of moves, each in turn separately
characterized, perhaps of various numbers of elements (the move described
above had four) and repeated for various numbers of times (three above).
For instance:

6h 5e 7h 3c 10k

1a 11k 2b

7g
12k
5h 4c 6g 3b

7f
8j 2a 6f 9j 5g

4b
3a 1c 10j

7e
6e 5f 11j

12j 2c 4a
8k 9k 1b
22 occasional pieces

Now there are three moves (1–4 [as just described], 5–7, 8–12), repeated
respectively three times (a, b, c), four times (e, f, g, h) and twice (j, k). Parts of
 7g 12k 
different moves may intersect, as at the beginning of the third line  5h .
 
And spaces in the square may be left blank, which means they will be silent.
Having the fixed locations for criteria of sound or its absence, one can fix the
extent of these locations, their possible durations, by applying the square of
lengths we first described. Superimposing the two squares gives 6h in four sec-
onds, 5e in ten, 7h in a half, silence for two, and so on. Yet the disposition of the
material in a given amount of time can be quite variable. If the element 6h refers
one to a given source or gamut of pitches (or timbre or dynamics) and the move
in which 6h occurs (5–7) involves a given tempo or configuration of durations,
both the move and its particular continuity could still be expressed by just one
sound. That sound, to be sure, might come at the beginning of the four-second
length and 5e could start at the beginning of the following ten-second length
marking off four seconds. Articulating all the structural lengths, then, can indi-
cate a minimal order. But even this order is not entirely fixed, and the form, orig-
inating as a frame or system of frames, is not necessarily closed. Silence, for one,
introduces ambiguities. Within the space of ten seconds, for instance, there may
be three and a half seconds of continuous silence. But this theoretically con-
tained, that is, structurally subordinate, amount of silence cannot be distin-
guished from the two seconds of silence that make up a discrete structural unit.
Further, this order can be elaborated by superimposing different readings of
the squares of durations and of elements. Use, say, the square of elements as
given (6h, 5e, 7h, et cetera) but combine it with the square of lengths beginning
with 5, at the end of the first line, and continuing with 12½, ⅝, 2½, et cetera, that
is, read this square turned over on one side. Simultaneously, then, in a second
“voice,” use, conversely, the square of lengths as given (4, 10, ½, 2, et cetera) but
combine it with the square of elements read as though turned on its side (si-
lence, 2b, 3b, silence, et cetera). Superimposing those two sets of readings or
“voices” one then gets (time lengths are given first, before the colon, element
indications second, after it):

5:6h 121 2 :5e 5


8 –7h 2 1 2 :0 et cetera
4:0 10:2b 1 2:3b 2:0 6:0

The relationship of the voices is, in a general way, like that of the voices of a
canon in so far as every reference to an element and every time length is found
first in one voice and then in the other, though the repetitions are not continu-
ously from the same to the other, or at equal distances, and they are variously
combined, that is, 5e is first located in 12½ seconds and then in 22, 4 seconds is
O n For m ( 1960) 23

first characterized by silence and then by 12jâ•›+â•›8k. Imitation is at geometrical


�intervals, in space, so to speak, rather than in linear continuities.
Such superpositions make possible a greater degree of internal liveliness, a
greater elaboration of particulars. Moves intersecting and voices overlapping can
obscure structural outlines and produce meetings or events that are disengaged
from them to become simply themselves. Then, a structure that seems closed by
a square of time lengths may also be dissolved by including a zero in the se-
quence of the time lengths’ proportions (that is, 2¼, 1, 0, 2â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›). The zero I take
to mean no time at all, that is, no measurable time, that is, any time at all, which
the performer takes as he will at each performance. Also, one may take fixed
lengths to represent space, leaving the speed of procedure through the space to
determinants other than the criteria that gave the lengths (compare John Cage’s
Music of Changes or the use of a page of score as a structural unit, for example in
Cage’s Music for Piano or Earle Brown’s Twenty-five Pages).
So far form, or rather the making of a score, has been taken as a matter of what
(this only generally) goes on for how long, and the simultaneity of varying struc-
tural lengths having various kinds of material within them. The succession of
lengths has been assumed fixed and predictable before a performance. Karlheinz
Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI introduced the notion of a variable, unpredictable
continuity of structural sections, variably characterized according to the se-
quence in which they happen to appear, and an indeterminacy of the total length
of a piece at any particular performance. Beginning with that idea, my Duo for
Pianists II makes a counterpoint of two sequences of structural units, each inde-
terminate before any performance. Each of the two pianists makes his particular
continuity of structural units (they total fifteen and are from 116 ; to 42 1 5 ; sec-
onds long) and is dependent for the successive choice of what units to play not,
as in Stockhausen, upon a straying eye, but upon what he has heard. Ten kinds of
sounds (for example highest octave fortissimo, pizzicato in the middle register,
eleven seconds of silence) as heard from one piano are cues to the units that the
other will play, and vice versa. A given cue may refer to one unit or to a set of al-
ternatives (two or three). A unit may be played any number of times during a
performance, depending on how often it is cued. One unit or pair of units needs
no cue and so can be used to start the piece and to return to during the piece
when one has either not heard or missed a cue. Once the piece has begun there
should be no pause between units, that is, one must always be doing something
(including the observation of silence), which is indicated by the score: after
playing one unit one must play whatever next one is referred to by the cue last
heard before the unit one is playing has ended. There is no cue for ending the
piece; the performers agree on a total duration.
The material in the various units also can be variably performed. Time is
given in seconds, or in one case as zero, and what one is to play in a given length
24 occasional pieces

is characterized with varying completeness, allowing the performer varying de-


grees of free choices. For example: (cue: five seconds of silence)

x-
1¼: 0 (that is, silence)/ ¼:3a 2b/ 1
5 :0/. 4:ppp f/ 1: pizz 1a+¼, 3, 1 10/ 31:1e/.
x-

The first number gives seconds. Within ¼ second one must first play three
notes from a pitch source “a” (in which there are, say, four pitches), in any higher
or lower
x-
octave than the one in which they appear originally (this is indicated
by  x- ). Any three of the four available pitches can be chosen, or one can be chosen
and repeated three times or two, one of which is played twice. With these one
must play two notes from source “b” (which has, say, six pitches in it). How these
five pitches are disposed—singly or in chords, their dynamics, and their individ-
ual durations—is left to the performer, who must, however, act within ¼ second.
Where 𝆏𝆏𝆏 and 𝆑 are indicated the specific requirements are two notes and these
dynamics; the rest is left to the performer. +¼, 3, 110 ; means that the notes
should have one or more of these durations. One need of course in no repetition
of this sequence choose or play the material in the same way.
The idea is to allow for precise actions under variously indeterminate condi-
tions. One may have ¼ second to play nine variously specified notes or thirty-
five seconds in which to play one of one’s choosing. Both fluidity and exactness
of performance are possible and no structural whole or totality is calculated
either specifically or generally in terms of probabilities or statistics. The score
makes no finished object, at best hopelessly fragile or brittle. There are only parts
that can be at once transparent and distinct.
Returning, finally, to the notion of form as a matter of what goes on for how
long, an inconsistency may have been noticed: the durations of the lengths in
the square of durations described earlier bore no particular relation to the dura-
tions of individual sounds within those lengths. The form as a sequence of struc-
tural lengths bore no precise relation to the material chosen for use in the form.
Form and material are taken as separate for the purposes of composition. That
form, as a structure indicated on a score, can be derived out of the nature of the
sound material is, I think, illusory. So conversely, a piece is not played to exhibit
its composed structure. Form as structure is simply a matter of technique. The
tendency to identify form and material, what is intended and what is given (com-
pare “art” and “nature”), implies the elimination of all expressive intentions:
which might be salutary. But it is practically impossible. If one refers form to
what is scored then it will never be exactly represented in a given performance.
In any case a kind of solipsism is implied. In making a piece initially, completely
arbitrary choices are inevitable, that is, choices of instruments, timing, performers.
O n For m ( 1960) 25

On the one hand, one is in an automatically open situation. Whatever one does
there will be unpredictable interferences (that is, circumstances of performance,
misunderstanding). On the other hand, no matter how open a procedure one
adopts, whether “naturally” (in as complete accordance with the nature of one’s
material as possible) or by chance (in accordance with the nature of events left
to themselves), a degree of circumscription, itself characteristic, will still be nec-
essary. So, for example, in John Cage’s Music for Piano the making of the score
seems as free from determination as possible, namely the fixing of pitches and
their spacing by marking the imperfections that happen to be on a blank piece of
paper. Yet the result is characteristic, less of the material (which is in any case
graphic or visual and not acoustic) than of Cage, who by inventing or choosing
this method and its application to one or more pianos has brought it about that
only certain pitches and noises, of certain timbres, will appear, only singly or in
flurries, in more or less isolated points. And, recalling the simplest view of form
with which we began, namely as a theatrical event, it is by definition not a “natu-
ral” event. It might be natural only if it were private. The alternative attending a
full acceptance of the equivalence of form and material is, in the end, no longer
to write or perform music: a perfectly valid possibility still leaving much avail-
able for the ears to focus attention on.

Written in German at the request of Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was first published in die Reihe 7,
Wien: Universal Edition, 1960.
5

Questions (1964)

Why this preoccupation with music of indeterminate elements? I mean, if


you’re going to write music, why not make up your mind and do it one way
or the other?

Individual motives doubtless vary. There may not be any. My own at first were
practical. It was quicker to write that way, leaving various aspects of the sound
free, especially after the laborious notation of details that had so preoccupied
one before. Then, the greater freedom made performance more convenient, if
not livelier for the performers. They could do more than perform as more or less
adequate machines of reproduction.
They are really in the making of the music again, and when you are about that
you cannot always be remaking. Something made by X, furthermore, if it is only
a score, is hardly all made except as a score. As sounds or performance it still has
a long way to go, with room for Y, your performer, to move around in it.

But can you trust the performers? What if they make a mess of it?

Partly it will be the composer’s fault. Some irreducible elements need to be


gauged, some points of a score fixed around which a performance can move.
Something must every now and again focus the performer’s attention and re-
quire a very clearly defined action—or thought, keeping quietly on the qui vive.
As for making a mess, anybody who wants to can do it; I still hope for some
good will.
Finally, I realized that the kind of sound made in an indeterminate situation
includes what could result in no other way; for example, the sound of a player
making up his mind, or having to change it. In fact, the indeterminate notation
I’ve used is, as far as I know, the only possible one for the kind of sound I should
like. And don’t forget, we also like to be surprised.
“The fluidity of the form,” Boulez has said, “must be integrated with the fluid-
ity of the vocabulary.”

27
28 occasional pieces

But why must the vocabulary be fluid?

You mean, why is repetition avoided? A matter of taste, partly. I like it best when
it happens unpredictably, being no more than likely, like meeting someone by
chance for the second time, or like another shooting star on the same night.
Also, performance is by nature practically unrepeatable, except when re-
corded. And making repetition elusive allows a piece more tolerance. You cannot
get hold of it and nail it down quite so fast. Yet, being indeterminate, it’s more
likely to accomodate interference—whatever else is going on around it—whose
indeterminate character it shares. It can be at once more permeable and, at ease
with contingencies, tougher.

They say repetition is the basis of intelligibility.

Perhaps. It’s also the basis of spells. At any event, some repetition takes place in-
evitably. And what is to be comprehended? Cannot a unique thing too be lucid?

Your objection to recording?

For reference, none. But have you noticed what seems to take the liveliness from
electronically produced sounds? There’s no immediate mystery about their
source. They just come from one or more loudspeakers. A sound, I think, ap-
pears more engaging when the specific actions that produce it are either visible
or felt as present, though not necessarily understood at all. ( John Cage discov-
ered a way of combining electronic sounds with the immediacy of a performance
by using contact microphones.)

Someone once remarked that this wasn’t music but prolegomena to music.

Well, in many respects it’s not much like earlier music; though can we say that it
is less or more music than before? And if it is preparatory only, the makings of
music, could one compare it to the preambles once recommended for laws,
called preludes to tunes? Their object was to be persuasive and explanatory
rather than compulsory and rigidly prescriptive.
I’ve heard the similar objection that by giving performers freedom of articu-
lation the “raw materials” of a score would not be transmuted into music. But
there is no need for the continuity from score to performance to be one from raw
to articulate. Their spheres are in any case very different—notations on paper
and physical actions; each has its own scale of roughness and precision. And
what do you mean by articulation—expressivity? Haven’t we decided to let it
follow rather than lead us? We are not exploiting sounds to serve our feelings.
Que stions ( 1964) 29

One might in fact think of articulation as the element of detail in a score which
makes a performer’s actions possible.

You mean you are not willing to take responsibility for any expression?

What do you want, a declaration of love? I take responsibility for the compe-
tence of a score and hope to have made something hazardous with which we
may try ourselves.

Written at the request of Heinz-Klaus Metzger, co-editor of the Italian cultural magazine collage:
dialoghi di cultura, nuova musica e arti visive contemporanee, and published in number 3–4,
Palermo, December 1964.
6

Electricity and Music (1968)

Marcel Duchamp wrote once that the only use for electricity was in the arts.
John Cage, I think, first used it when he attached a metal coil or spring to a pho-
tograph cartridge, in the place where the needle is inserted: with the volume of
the phonograph amplifier up, the coil was struck, producing a low, resonant, me-
tallic booming sound. Several decades later (about 1960), he elaborated this
idea in Cartridge Music, where a variety of objects, such as bits of wood, paper,
or wire, are similarly amplified. Shortly after he introduced the use of contact
microphones and made available the possibility of amplification for any sort of
instrument or sound producing activity.
It was live electronic music, not on magnetic tape, nor ready-made out of
radios. Principally it enlarges small sounds, as though by an auditory micro-
scope. Minute and delicate operations, such as scraping a matchstick or stroking
a feather, are magnified to various degrees of audibility. Where an instrument is
amplified, microphones can pick up, along with its normally projected sound,
the small miscellaneous sounds inherent in its playing and mechanism: the
horsehair of a bow rubbing against a wound metal string, the clicking of keys on
a wind instrument, the pressing of a string against a fingerboard, a player’s shift-
ing the position of his instrument.
Amplification can also change the character of a sound completely. A loose
coil of wire suspended and struck can sound, when amplified, like the ricochet
of gunfire; a matchbox pushed along a tabletop like heavy furniture; a strip of
metal scraped by one’s fingernail like the cry of an animal.
And finally, the apparatus of amplification can produce its own independent
sound: many kinds of hum, static, and feedback.
But of the various aspects of sound, electricity draws particular attention to
the matter of loudness—once dealt with by John Cage in a remark that, as far as
too loud is concerned, follow the general outlines of the Christian life. Composer
and performer have the means quite simply to cause physical pain. Electricity
has given them a crude kind of power. Yet just before overwhelming loudness
was seen to be possible there appeared a persistent concern for the quietest kind

31
32 occasional pieces

of sound. It is true that John Cage has subjected us to the fiercest loudness of
sound unhesitatingly, whereas Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, has not. Has
either more interest in the exercise of power than the other?
In the meantime, anyone who has been in a city or near jet airplanes or at-
tended a rock band performance has heard sounds louder than those brought
about by John Cage.
There are other kinds of microphones and amplification. Alvin Lucier, for in-
stance, has used equipment that can register and amplify certain brain waves. He
has used vibration microphones designed to test building structures, that pick
up, not the sounds pointed at them through the air, but whatever reverberations
are transmitted through a building’s surfaces and frame. Now he has a sonar-
dolphin, which sends out impulses and recollects them after they have bounced
off whatever they were pointed at; the pattern and speed of their return repre-
sents the shape of what they were pointed at. Here amplification is not of actions
to be performed, but of acoustical activity that is going on willy-nilly, or natu-
rally. (The brain wave piece is a partial exception, because the performer whose
head is wired for amplification must make his mind blank in order to produce
the kind of brain waves that will generate impulses through the amplification
system.) The vibration microphone and sonar-dolphin are rather, as Lucier says,
like audio cameras directed at acoustical objects.
The sounds that result are not very much like anything one might have heard
before. But more, the spectacle of unusual equipment and curious activities on
the part of the performers tends to suggest a certain atmosphere, perhaps of sci-
ence fiction. The sounds produced in this situation enhance the strangeness of
the atmosphere. They become a kind of accompaniment or background music
for the activities of the performers and the equipment. (Lucier’s nonelectric
works all have some kind of theatrical character.) Thus, these pieces are not at all
scientifically cool, but rather bizarre or psychological. (To Yuji Takahashi, the
brain wave piece suggested electrocution.) They deliberately exhibit some of
the accidental beauties of scientific activity and equipment.
Once a sound enters an electrical circuit it can, of course, be modified in a
number of ways—reverberation, vibrato, distortion, filtering, and the like. Through
a ring modulator sounds from two sources can be made to interfere and change
each other’s characteristics. Gordon Mumma has designed a number of elabora-
tions of such a circuit whose effect is to distort or alter sounds sent into them, or
delay the appearance of a sound, both by predictable and unpredictable inter-
vals; and generally to impose on sound patterns of diversion for their frequency,
intensity, and timbre. A circuit or system of circuits tends to be unique for any
given piece, and is in a sense the piece itself, its most irreducible feature.
What has drawn music to electricity? Partly—as in the multiplication of
Â�instruments in the orchestra—the opportunity for greater loudness, and for
El ec tr icit y and Mus i c ( 1968) 33

d� ifferent qualities of sound, though with an orchestra the aim is also weightiness
and greater publicity: more people are addressed in a larger space. Electricity, on
the other hand, is a way simply to loudness as such or to an extreme sharpness of
sound or intensity, as with very bright light or overwhelming sea waves. The
loudness is not used to match the size of an audience.
Of course electricity is now the great canning medium for sound, through
records and tapes, a great force for conservation; and a means for the most ex-
tensive broadcasting. But live electronic music generally resists that, taking its
existence only in performance, and is in this way more strictly musical than any
record or tape. In fact, the very use of electricity introduces whole new areas of
unpredictability.
Indeterminacy can be built into a circuit. There are, for instance, random
noise generators (used for acoustical testing). Gordon Mumma has devised cir-
cuits that cause a variety of ranges of indefiniteness, for example, in the appearance
or departure of a sound and in the way several sounds will affect one another’s
characteristics when they overlap.
In its practical application, at least by musicians (and sometimes by electrical
engineers), electricity shows within the circuits it activates a persistently elusive
character. It is unreliable stuff, full of surprises and liable to scramble the familiar
parameters of sound (adjusting a volume control, for instance, may unpredictably
alter a sound’s pitch). Circuits are given to a variety of breakdowns or to pÂ� roduce
unforeseeably hums and feedback, a kind of electrical spontaneous combustion.
And they can be very sensitive to any given local electrical conditions, man-
made or atmospheric, and, in the case of transistorized circuits, to heat or cold.
John Cage’s Variations VI incorporates this process of breakdown and subse-
quent modification: to perform it you assemble a number of electrical circuits
making up sound systems, take them apart, and variously put back together the
component elements. (This recalls how once in the course of a performance of a
piece for two pianos, David Tudor stopped playing and crawled under the piano
to fix one of the pedals, which had come loose. The other pianist continued play-
ing. When the pedal was fixed, Tudor sat down again and resumed his playing.
Insofar as that piece could be thought of as an activity or process in time and not
simply as a finished and self-contained object, what might have been considered
an interruption or breakdown was instead another event in the history of its life.)
By amplification everything a performer does, however slight or detailed,
whether directly related to the deliberate production of sound or not, can
become activated. The equipment is almost always on; the current is running.
(And the air is almost always full of transmitted waves and signals.) Performance
results not only in the usual acoustic reverberations, but in a variety of electrical
ones as well, which in turn can become further sounds. Performing is not only
the direct making of a sound, where one action generally makes one sound, but
34 occasional pieces

can include actions that release each one a multiplicity of sounds (compare
the  complex result of the simple action of upsetting a precariously balanced
stack of variously resonant objects; or the elaborate organism that issues from a
simple seed).
David Tudor, when preparing a piece that involves amplification or electrical
modification, often multiplies his circuits and wiring to the extent that, once all
the amplifiers, preamplifiers, speakers, mixers, generators, consoles, and micro-
phones are connected and turned on, he can no longer entirely keep track of
where and how the sound appears.
Electrical apparatus has limits. The sound that passes through a loudspeaker
tends to be quite specialized and its origin in space confined (though this can be
offset by using many loudspeakers or mobile ones); and it tends to have a fairly
uniform quality characteristic not of itself but of the loudspeaker. The common-
est sound that circuits are likely to produce, feedback, easily turns bland and
neutral. Hum is common too, but more unobtrusive and complex (rather like
the buzz that one gets in one’s ears). And the range of sound qualities that cir-
cuits generate on their own or produce by modifying sounds fed into them
seems, from what I have heard so far, fairly confined; more so, for example, than
what a group of, say, seven instruments could manage without electricity.
But the effect that circuits can have on the timing of sounds and rhythm may
be exceptional: the surprise of a sound’s appearance or departure—sometimes a
sound is caught at a given pitch and intensity and holds for a very long time, for
instance, then abruptly vanishes without decline or decay; the slightly unpre-
dictable delays between the action of performance and the emergence of sound
from a loudspeaker; the sudden dead blackouts of all sound, except perhaps for
a residual hum in the air; and the rhythmic continuities of pulse generation.
About indeterminate characteristics: Unlike most of the visual arts, music is
naturally mobile and takes place only in time. It is in all practical respects subject
to time, and hence to the changing encounters that time brings. Much tradi-
tional Western music, as it leads one to regard a piece of music as a perfect,
�finished object existing forever in an ideal form, rather grandly ignores these
�circumstances. (Painting or any visual art that is not deliberately fragile or
changeable is subject to time in more incidental ways, such as lighting condi-
tions or whatever effects weather, chemical change, or rough handling have on
canvas, paper, stone, pigment, and the like.) Music comes about by performance.
You cannot say that a musical score is music (otherwise music would be like
painting). Attending a performance of music is as though you were watching
someone paint (someone who may have a fairly good idea of what he is going to
paint—and you do not), and seeing the resulting painting at the same time. But
you could see the painting only moments at a time and when the painter is fin-
ished the painting would again be gone. You would be left with no more than
El ec tr icit y and Mus i c ( 1968) 35

you could remember of it. (There might have been a score, that is, instructions
and sketches suggesting to the painter what he should do; and it might be available
for you to look at and try out.) Thus, music is naturally fragile, though if one in-
cludes in its design something of the indefiniteness that must in any case belong
to it, then one plays time’s game within the music. The music is like an organism
that grows and decays: it has a life that can include rather than fight time.
Traditional music tends to direct one’s attention toward a finished end, a fin-
ished piece, the result of construction in sound. The preparation and means to
that end are subordinate, not meant to be noticed. The emphasis in making such
a piece falls on forethought and planning, assuming great confidence in these, a
confidence that may have to draw considerably on what is tried and tested and
perhaps on what is simply familiar. There may be a tendency to look backward. If
the music includes unpredictable elements however, you do not aim so directly
at an end; you may in fact ignore it. Instead, you must pay attention to immediate
and practical matters: how a given sound or superposition of sounds may at any
moment come into being, in thought, decision, and physical action. The sum,
direction, and character of a sequence of such sounds—of a piece—are not
�exactly forethought or imposed, but emerge, come and go, in the course of perfor-
mance. Arrangements are made so that the piece has in it the continual possibil-
ity of surprise (and so of renewal), and that this arises directly out of the practical
business of making the music.
It could be objected that what absorbs and surprises the performers cannot
do the same for an audience, that the performances of such music are a self-�
indulgence for the players. That may be true. But being a performer and being an
audience are not the same, to begin with. Each must first content himself with
his own circumstances. In any case, the music is often unassertive or unaggres-
sive. Even when it appears most fierce or loud its ferocity has no particular direc-
tion; no specific anger moves it. It does not intend to move listeners in a given
way. They must be free. If it has a general effect, it will be of calm, perhaps min-
gled with surprises; or disturbance, but without any ill will; or irritation, but
impersonal. What might appear to be detachment in this music results from a
concern with freedom, and a great hesitation before the use of power.

Written at the request of Paolo Emilio Carapezza, the editor of collage: dialoghi di cultura, nuova
musica e arti visive contemporanee, and published in number 8, Palermo, December 1968.
7

Interview with Victor Schonfield (1969)

How did indeterminacy begin? I don’t know really. Everything seemed to happen
simultaneously. Cage was doing Sixteen Dances and Concerto for Prepared Piano
and Chamber Orchestra (both in 1951), and in the course of his work he got on
to using squares in which he set out the material at his disposal. The squares were
a stage in a particular method of serial composition, associated with his growing
belief in a philosophy of non-involvement and purging the idiosyncrasies of
one’s own personality. He accepted the logical extension of this idea to music—
although it contradicted everything we’d been taught music was about—and then
he had to find a technique to bring it about. He started wondering how to get
from square to square, and that’s when chance cropped up. He chose the materials
consciously, and the chance element was the sequence in which they were used.
His piece for radios, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951, dedicated to Morton
Feldman), the first that was indeterminate in performance, came around the same
time as his Music of Changes, which was indeterminate in its composition only.
At the same period I was doing a piece also using squares, where the chance
element emerged in performance: the notes that the player reads as usual across
the page had originally been written down the page in vertical columns. I also
wrote pieces for voice in which no notes were given: there was just a line moving
up and down across the page, and the pitch of the singing moved in the same
general direction as the line. You never know what pitch you’re going to get from
a percussion instrument—you just have to take what comes—and I wanted to
treat the voice in the same way. The singers have usually been subjected to every
other kind of control (durations, loudness, vowel sounds), but I felt like leaving
something open—in the way, say, that Bach left out tempos and instrumentation
from The Art of the Fugue.
The first one of us, however, who really went in for indeterminacy in perfor-
mance was Feldman with those pieces written on graph paper where the range of
the instrument is divided into high, middle, and low, and the performer can pick
any note from the specified register. Feldman has dropped indeterminacy nowa-
days, and he must always have looked at it very differently from Cage.

37
38 occasional pieces

I think this interest had to do with his interest in painting. He used to put
sheets of graph paper on the wall, and work on them like paintings. Slowly his
notation would accumulate, and from time to time he’d stand back to look at the
overall design. For him it had less to do with belief in chance: it was more func-
tion than anything else. He would talk about different weights of sound—and
that was simply the easiest way to express them. Pitches didn’t really matter, as
there were so many other controls, and he used chance without its interfering
with expression. What Cage admired in him and what they had most in common
was heroism—trusting in performers, despite the risk that they might destroy
the thing completely. Unless the performer committed himself to the pieces,
they could be horrible, and it was their very dangerousness which made them so
beautiful. Cage’s were beautiful in the same way, just because you never knew
what would come next.
You never think of yourself as part of tradition or a member of a group. What
happens is that there are a number ideas around, some of which you have in
common with others. All that we had in common was a desire to do something
different, so as to be clear of styles that were not ours to borrow, or that seem to
have gone dead. We did admire each other, but we had no desire to imitate each
other. Feldman says a group gives a sense of permission, a feeling that you do
have to fight against an accepted standard because others are working outside it
too. It must have been very different for isolated figures like Varèse. In fact, you
find that he was squelched at one stage of his career: he stopped producing, as he
had no space to work in.
Our circle also gave us the impetus to have our pieces performed, mainly due
to Cage, who was always a performer. (At one point later on there did seem to
be  an imbalance between composers and performers, but now it’s righting
itself. We’re all finding we have to be performers ourselves in order to get any-
thing done.)
I don’t think that indeterminacy is simply a rehash of Dada. Dada was meant
to shock. It depended on the existence of an Establishment, and its character was
polemical. All this is absent from Cage.
At this period, from 1950 to 1951, I was a sixteen-year-old in high school.
Although my parents were German, half the authors my father published were
Jewish, and he was outspoken against the Nazis, so by the time I was born in
1934 they had moved to France. My father was a very good amateur cellist, and
his father had been a professor of music at Bonn and friendly with Brahms. My
father also met Brahms once—at the time of Clara Schumann’s funeral. After the
fall of France, we made our way through Spain and Portugal. We waited around
for weeks for space on a ship—we had to pay a great deal for it—but eventually
we sailed to America. I remember enjoying the voyage—three weeks on a tiny
Portuguese boat.
Inter v iew w ith Vic tor S chon f i eld ( 1969) 39

I hated modern music at first, but this changed when I began composing at
the age of about fourteen. Someone gave me a book on orchestration, I got inter-
ested and started on my own without any formal instruction. Around that time
I met Varèse through my parents and liked his music a lot, and the Juilliard Quartet
were giving concerts at which I got to hear Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and
all six of the Bartók quartets.
Yet the decisive event was when someone gave me fifteen years’ issues of the
magazine New Music, which Henry Cowell edited. Cowell published untoucha-
ble scores only, and his magazine was a whole history of American experimental
music in itself. It included the first Cage pieces I ever saw—Amores, and some
percussion pieces. New Music gave you the idea there were all kinds of things you
could do that nobody had done before—the same feeling I got from Schoenberg
and Bartók—and that you could play an instrument in absolutely any way
you liked.
Someone once wrote that I introduced the I Ching (the ancient Chinese
Book of Changes) to him—my father published it—but I can’t believe he
hadn’t seen it before. In our family we consulted it every New Year’s Eve. Even
if the answer seemed irrelevant, it was always nice to read, and it gave you some-
thing to focus your mind on. If you’re caught in an endless mental circle, it pres-
ents you with something to face. Sometimes a meaningful answer does come
out: one evening I was with Cage and Alan Watts (the Zen philosopher). Watt’s
wife was expecting a baby and Cage asked what would be the baby’s sex. Watts
said he didn’t know, so Cage suggested we ask the I Ching. We tossed coins and
came up with the text: “A woman is heavy with child and will not give birth.” It
was an awful moment all round, but the baby turned out fine. The point about
the I Ching is that it is an oracle for the present, not the future. The idea is that
each toss is made in a particular context at a particular moment, and is in some
way affected by the context, so that the answer is valid only for the time
it is given.
Around 1951–52, my pieces had very few pitches, resulting from exercises
Cage had set me. A piece with only three or four notes would go on for six or
seven minutes, because what interested me was not so much the notes as their
overlappings and combinations.
I had picked up Cage’s main formal idea, which was always time lengths: a
series of spaces would be the structure, which would have nothing to say about
what went into the spaces. Examples of this are his early piano pieces and Music
of Changes, or his String Quartet (1950), where he expressed the structure by
melodic elements chosen from a gamut he had already decided upon. His rhyth-
mic structure would be based on a microstructure of (say) successively one, two,
and three units. One such group would be the first part, two such groups the
second part, and so on. Having fixed on a pattern the idea was to obscure it:
40 occasional pieces

I would use complex numbers and irrational fractions, and superimpose varia-
tions, like doing it backward.
You can only go on for so long with very few notes, of course, unless you
decide to make it your trademark. My own motive was simply to discover how
free you could be within very narrow limits. A piece with two violins at slow
speed, using only two or three pitches, could seem like hours although it lasted
only a few minutes, because of the narrow band of differences, and the fact that
the ear wasn’t used to hearing differences of that kind.
When I went to college to study classics—I now earn my living teaching
Greek at Harvard—I kept on writing. I’d do about one piece a year, most of
which were piano pieces for David Tudor. This was Tudor’s great period as a pi-
anist, before he went on to newer sound sources, and he was simply too good not
to use. He’d have a recital and ask for a new piece, and so I’d do one. I was getting
back to indeterminacy through writing pieces that were impossible to play due
to aspects of rhythm, fingering, or keyboard layout. The impossibility would
force the performer to discover a solution of his own. Another way was that the
complexity of the patterns got me into impossible situations. One way of cutting
the knot was to declare that the tempo was zero, which I did in about 1954.
This fairly determinate phase continued until a situation occurred when I had
to produce quickly—for a concert by Frederic Rzewski and myself in 1956. I’d
been writing extremely complicated pieces, and it was clear I wouldn’t be able to
finish in time. What we did was a kind of improvisation—the score dealt only
with spaces of time and groups of notes from which we could select—and then
I started doing other pieces like this. They’d have time lengths and what was to
happen within these, and they’d usually state the number of notes to be played.
There might or might not be more details, and I’d give a wide range of instruc-
tions, from playing two particular notes within an eighth of a second to playing
five notes from a wide selection within a minute—from nearly fixed to nearly free.
Real indeterminacy came in when more than one instrument was involved.
I was inspired by Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, where the material is set out on
one large sheet, and the performer starts playing wherever his eye falls. In this,
however, chance is a reflection of the performer’s will. I decided to place chance
completely outside his control by making his ear the vehicle. Pieces like my Duo
for Pianists II (1957) place him in an unforeseen situation without warning,
simply through the exercise of his hearing: one performer plays something, and
the other recognizes it as a cue to which he has to respond.
In a piece where the players cue each other, the situation might arise where
each is waiting for his cue from the other, so that by the rules of the piece they
could remain silent forever after. In practice they’d have to work out a solution
on the spot. I’ve always had lots of silence in my pieces, and one of the results is
that people may have time to realize that they’ve landed in an impossible position,
Inter v iew w ith Vic tor S chon f i eld ( 1969) 41

and to decide what to do—break the rules, or whatever. Indeterminacy was a


way of producing sounds I could see no other way of producing. In that sense it
was purely a practical idea.
Next problem: how to achieve this for a soloist? I started getting the player to
react by making him play things whose results you couldn’t predict. This was also
partly a reaction to Tudor, who would always work out a piece fully beforehand.
For example, I’d tell him to go from a note near the bottom piano register to a
note near the top as quickly as possible. This meant that one of three things
could happen: he could go too low, he could go too high, or he could hit the note
exactly. For each possibility I prescribed a different continuation, so that he
could not know in advance what he’d find himself doing. For Pianist (1959) is
an example.
Another thing was exploring situations in which the instrument as well as the
player is indeterminate, like telling the pianist to play as quietly as possible. Here
again three things could happen: he could manage it successfully, he could play
too loudly, or he could play so softly that nothing could be heard at all.
The latest interest of mine is composing with verbal instructions only, which
leaves a lot of room for the player to use his discretion. I’m trying to see how little
I can indicate and yet come up with a piece that’s clearly itself, one that still has
a life of its own. But after all this you still haven’t the foggiest idea what my music
sounds like; you’ll have to hear it or play it to find out.
The big things happening today are live electronic music, improvisation, and
theatrical pieces. The first two coincide in Musica Elettronica Viva and AMM.
The danger with improvisation groups is too much homogeneity. There is a ten-
dency to join in with whatever the musician imagines to be dominant, which is
something I try to prevent in my own work. I feel a possible solution might be to
disperse performers more widely in space.
Electronic music started with tape music, which has just about disappeared.
Tape is the deadest thing imaginable. No matter how interesting the sounds on
the tape, the only sound source is the loudspeaker, which is absurd if you’re
going to think of a concert as having a social character. Apart from the improvi-
sation groups, this leaves you with the Sonic Arts Group in New York (Gordon
Mumma, Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Alvin Lucier) and (from all I hear
about her) with Pauline Oliveros. Tudor, of course, is really doing something
with live electronics too. There is certainly a continuity between indeterminacy
and live electronics: you can make machines whose effects on the sound are un-
predictable (as Mumma does), or you can exploit the characteristics of electric-
ity itself, using feedback or the kinds of fault that develop when you multiply
your circuits (which interests Tudor very much).
The theatrical side is epitomized in Alvin Lucier. In his pieces the focus of in-
terest is still the sound, but the way it is produced creates a special psychological
42 occasional pieces

atmosphere. One of his pieces uses brain waves. The performer sits down and
has electrodes strapped to his head, and the sounds of the brain come out of
loudspeakers. Lucier also has objects like gongs and drums in front of the loud-
speakers, and these are activated by the brainwave sounds to make additional
ones. The piece begins with the performer entering and sitting down, and he has
to make his mind a blank before he can emit the types of waves whose sounds
can be heard on the speakers.
As for my contemporaries, I was very impressed by Boulez’s Second Sonata,
which Tudor played in 1950, and when Cage sent me to Boulez in Paris we spent
a whole week together. But it was bad when he and Stockhausen began polemi-
cizing against Cage for doing something wrongly, when it was something that
Cage had introduced and they had picked up from him. Why should they attack
him for doing it his own way, especially when they might never have thought of
doing it themselves? Their chief ambition seems to be to improve on Cage, to
show him how indeterminacy should really work. But for people like Cage,
Cornelius Cardew (I met him first in Cologne in 1960 while I was in the army,
when I got several ideas from his Octet 1959), Feldman, and Tudor I can only
express love and admiration, and say that I’ve learned infinite amounts from
all of them.

This transcribed interview with the questions omitted, appeared in music and musicians, London,
May, 1969.
8

Fragments to Make Up an
Interview (1970–71)

I had thought of giving you instructions for the composition of an essay or talk
somehow about music, the way Play consists of instructions for playing—
making sounds. Play was written for people not necessarily trained in music. An
inclination to play with sounds would be sufficient incentive to draw one to its
performance, though some ingenuity, discipline, concentration, and calm would
enhance a performance.
But could I really ask someone to play by making a representation that some­
how touches on music, with (perhaps) thoughts, descriptions, narratives? Con­
sidering music not only as it concerns her and him but also as something with a
life of its own, like air you breathe and also can whistle with, or like an animal
who sometimes comes to visit?
In Play, the instructions are formal, indicating limits (do something two or
three times) or descriptive of how to go about doing it (make sounds in short
bursts), and they include suggestions for coordination between players. Must
the essay be a solo? Use quotations (the following, mostly out of newspaper
�interviews, are from, in order, Elliott Carter, Benjamin Britten, Pierre Boulez,
Mario Davidovsky, Bulent Arel, and Curt Sachs). As for material, experience,
and reflection, can it command the immediate recognition a sound does? Some­
one has said you cannot argue with a sound: you could listen to it, accompany
it, match it, answer it, drown it out. Could we do that with statements or Â�remarks,
words? If there were formal requirements, say, deal with four subjects in seven
sentences having respectively fourteen, twenty-two, five, ten, fourteen, five,
twenty-seven words in them, it might turn into poetry.
The writing about music I like best, John Cage and Cornelius Cardew’s, com­
municates a very strong sense of the dignity of music, partly by refusing to treat
it as an art, except possibly where descriptions of procedures of composition
are involved.

43
44 occasional pieces

The purpose of a musical score is to prevent the performer from lapsing


into his old routines. When there is no instruction from the composer,
the performer falls back on familiar tricks. Most improvised music is far
less free than music a composer has scored. A composer is in command
of time; he lives above time, controlling all of his material at will. He can
correct the beginning of a work while the performer is literally caught
in the flow of time.

Do I hear a voice of despair? The composer is master, shouldering all burdens,


enjoying all risks; the performer is servant, however skillful.

A restlessness [he said] and intensity had come into the interpretation
and performance of music which was surely allied to the speed and fe­
verishness of modern life.

What if the composer is one of the performers? And if the performers are good,
will they fall back on familiar tricks?
What, in fact, will they do? Many things, as suits each one. Let playing be
composition and composition playing. If composition is putting together (or
giving instructions for it), playing is an activity that can, while allowing that it
may fall apart, be the life of what was composed. If composition is the condition
of all sounds, all those around us, dormant in things or awake in the air, playing
can be their investigation: listen, converse with, accompany, pursue, abandon,
alter, liberate.
The matter of instructions is delicate. How explicit or ambiguous will they
be? To what extent will you insist on their being observed? It becomes almost a
question of what is legal, the letter of instruction or notation, and what is right,
which cannot be formulated exactly and will be evident only by its active pres­
ence. Can we have the latter without the former? Or rather, can we all have the
latter without the former? Can we simply be set afloat, or will we need, say a
piece of wood or stone, or a chart (such, I would choose, as may dissolve in
the water)?
Is this anti-intellectual?
Do you mean, does it elude your analysis? Perhaps. It is certainly dramatic.
A process of discovery in which you are always tossing away what you have
found: you cannot hold on to it in any case.
Playing with others, I sometimes cannot follow any connection between
what I do and the sounds heard. Once, trying out preparations on a piano, I struck
a key and heard completely blended with the piano’s sound a piercing blast from
a boat horn outside on the river. For an instant I had the sensation that by striking
the piano key I had produced that sound (even its articulation corresponded
Frag ments to Mak e Up an Inte r v i e w ( 1970– 71) 45

�
exactly to the attack and release of the key, and someone in the next room, who
couldn’t see me and was busy doing something, suddenly exclaimed and asked
how I made that sound). It was exhilarating. Many years later, having the oppor­
tunity to play with AMM and using mostly electric bass, it would happen that
I became quite disconnected from the sounds I thought I was making, partly
because the loudspeaker to which my amplification led was at some distance and
partly because the sounds of others absorbed mine in such a way that I had no
idea of the result of my activity. Again I had a feeling of great lightness. The bond­
age of effect to cause is temporarily released, without loss of concentration to
activity, which could be cause, not of the presence of phenomena, which must be
effect (or, no sense of effect at all, only phenomena). But I found it hard to con­
tinue playing with complete attention and care. The feeling of lightness gives way
to a suspicion that I am only going through motions. (After a time, I disconnected
the instrument from its amplification and played, I thought, almost inaudibly to
anyone but myself. Later I learned that the sound had carried very well.)
But you should hear about AMM from themselves (and see Cardew, “Notes
on AMM music with oblique reference to an ethic of improvisation,” in I-Kon,
volume 1, number 5, March 27, 1968, New York). The unpredictable sounds or
alterations of sound which surface with a precise suddenness of their own by the
occasional spontaneous effect of electricity (compare David Tudor, Gordon
Mumma, David Behrman).

Composers who publish in this journal never discuss important ques­


tions of choice and decision.

How good is your ear? Can quotation marks be heard?

Here, as composer, we try to organize an artistic object, to establish re­


lationships, hierarchies and so forth. Some involved with ‘total theatre’
are not creating an artistic object but instead are creating an actual proc­
ess that provides them with psychological—not intellectual—stimula­
tion. This gives them a sense of participation in some unidentifiable
kind of thing. In this sense, it’s a poor man’s group therapy, a symptom
of the collapse of all values. God is dead and there is nothing to replace
Him. But artists have a moral and intellectual responsibility not to play
ball in the market.

Why must we have all this squabbling?

Life gives us more than enough chance. In art, some order must
be imposed.
46 occasional pieces

What is the order we impose, what is the order we may discover? What is the
relation of order to a feeling of being alive communicated harmlessly and with
exactness?
Occasionally, some of us appear to be taken by a nostalgia for notes, black,
white, stemmed, decorated, plain on five-line staves, and so on. What is that
pleasure? Is it that we can now do that too? Once I thought, it had all better go—
melody, rhythm, harmony, et cetera, not as a negative thought, not that one
should avoid them, but that, while one did something else, they would emerge of
their own accord, be reborn, you might say, in all innocence. We should be free
from the assertive, direct consequence of intention and effect, because the inten­
tion would be merely one’s own and circumscribed, while so many others forces
are so obviously at work in the final effect. Compare Morton Feldman (I don’t
remember the exact words): don’t push the notes around. What is that some­
thing else that would call for a careful account of all one’s good work?

Time and space, substance and power were beyond man’s control. But
sound he created himself; in music, he took the heavy responsibility for
either strengthening or imperiling the equilibrium of the world. And
his responsibility included the world’s truest images, the dynasty and
the country; the welfare of the empire depended on the correctness of
pitches and scales.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The history of Chinese pitch is a history of some
twenty centuries of confusion, deception, and failure.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The great heart
in another people’s music rarely beats in unison with our own.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The
pitch itself is within limits arbitrary; for a loud singer it is tuned up, for
a singer with a small voice it is tuned down.

If you are to have a theory, it may as well be grand or else be made to permeate as
far as possible, and if it fails, let the pieces scatter cheerfully, while we practice
what we can and what is in us.
And now we have these questions:

1. What are you doing now that appears different from what you have
done before?
2. What music(s) engage, distract, interest you?
3. What sounds?
4. What practical matters are you concerned about?
5. What has the study of Greek (or any other thing) to do with music?
6. Have you avoided any questions?

(5) Education (compare Cardew, “the educative function of music”): the


study of what is attractive (or perhaps repulsive), moving or prodding,
Frag ments to Mak e Up an Inte r v i e w ( 1970– 71) 47

and yet escapes final comprehension, what is intermittently lucid


and opaque.
(2) Glass, Cardew, Ichiyanagi, the Song Books (Cage), AMM, David
Tudor, the Ba-Benzele Pygmies, and much else. Some music, Lucier and
Feldman, for example, sometimes haunts me, but I don’t know what to
do about it. For a long time I have heard nothing of Stockhausen, Kagel,
or Kosugi. I have yet to hear the Scratch Orchestra. And I am interested
in Reich, Riley, and La Monte Young. . . . It’s a hard question. Those
notes: they have the appearance of something spell-like or magical:
a formulaic pattern is so clear. Can you have an innocent magic?
(1) I have been attempting orchestra music, where questions asked
earlier take on a very hard edge, how to manage with larger numbers of
people, for instance. A minimum of five is allowed to constitute an or­
chestra; but there may be as many as ten orchestras performing. How to
speak to so many, encourage, or allow each player to hear herself when
needed? How much law is needed? How to make it transparent?

Ideas are hard to escape, especially those one started with. Out of the following
perhaps (a) sounds new to me: A composition (a score) is only material for per­
formance: it must make possible the freedom and dignity of the performers; it
should allow at any moment surprise, for all concerned, players, composer, lis­
teners; it should allow both concentration, precision in detail, and release, or
collapse, virtuosity, and doing things in the ordinary way. No sound, noise, inter­
val, et cetera as such is preferable to any other sound, including those always
around us, provided that (1) one is free to move away or toward it, and that
(2) sounds are not used deliberately to compel feelings in others. Let the listeners
be just as free as the players.

The quotations can be found in The New York Times, March 2, 1969 (Carter); March 9, 1969 (Boulez);
May 3, 1970 (Davidovsky and Arel); The Times, London, sometime in the Spring of 1968
(Britten); The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, New York, 1943 (Sachs).
Written at the request of Françoise Esselier. The article was first published in a French translation
in VH 101, Revue trimestrielle, number 4, Paris, winter 1970–71. The English original was
published in ex tempore III/2, Edmonton: University of Alberta, Fall–Winter, 1985–86.
9

For Merce (1975)

Written, tried Burdocks, before I knew of Borst Park, the dance for which the
music would be used, was then dedicated to Merce. This, partly, is why; I took
encouragement from the many things I had seen him do. Particularly the mix of
things and the spirit that kept them both apart and together; the changes one
after another; the complicatedness of things together. Many various processes,
activities, states felt as if they were coming—spinning, breaking off, drifting,
walking, just moving—from a source that was magnetically there, and kept elud-
ing you; and each element of that variety could still be itself. There were also
unisons (we can all play the melody together). Then again different bodies
making the same movements (read bass or treble clef). The groups coordinated
within one another but separately active. The cheerfulness. The gravity. The en-
durance (five hundred and eleven times). The abstraction, and the chance, each
one’s own, of something’s becoming evocative. Other qualities generated by the
dancing I could at best hope for, though they are the very means of that encour-
agement: pleasure, generosity, and a sense of danger made sometimes light, some-
times piercing and harsh by concentration and discipline. Burdocks, sounds, can
be unruly and messy; they cannot do each other bodily damage, unlike the dancing,
and I think they feel the lack of that possibility.

This was a text for Merce Cunningham, edited by James Klosty, New York: Saturday Review
Press, 1975.

49
10

Conversation with Walter


Zimmermann (1976)

Meeting you here now in Cambridge I remember a piece by Morton Feldman


called Christian Wolff in Cambridge. What is so remarkable about Christian
Wolff in Cambridge?

Well, as I was saying before, I’ve lived a long time in Cambridge. And I think
what Feldman had in mind was, he’s been here twice in Cambridge when I was
here. And the first time he met me, he came to my room. I was staying in one of
the Harvard dormitories, in an old fashioned building, old-fashioned room with
a very high ceiling. And I was sitting at a desk with books all around, and my
nose—I’m short-sighted—my nose very close to the paper. And he came in, and
he saw me there. And then we had a very nice time. I had organized a concert on
which his music was played.
And then, perhaps three or four years later, again there was a concert. And
Feldman again decided to come up. In those days Feldman very rarely left New
York. So it was very unusual for him to go anywhere. This was quite special. And
my address was once again this very same place. And he knocked on my door,
and there I was in exactly the same situation he had seen me three or four years
before. And I think that sense of not changing over long periods of time is what
gave him the idea of that title. Beyond that, I don’t know, like everything in
Feldman’s music, it’s extremely hard to verbalize. Its techniques, its methods and
all the rest of it. By verbalizing I also mean analyze. There is no system. He works
just by sort of sheer intuition, I think. And our own relationship has a little bit of
that character. We don’t ask too many questions. And I think some of that also is
expressed in the title of the piece.
Yeah, also I think Feldman has very strong emotional attachments. And I
think he also has a strong sense of that period, when he and Cage and myself
were living in New York, and Earle Brown, and always comes back to that, I mean
it’s like being in a Garden of Eden. This in the early fifties. And I believe that he

51
52 occasional pieces

must have changed. I also saw him recently in June. He got a chance to hear me
where I talk now, and I don’t think he likes it anymore. But I think he regarded
me for a long time, because I was the youngest also, as the surviving representa-
tive of that golden era, you see of the fifties. I like his music very much. There’s no
question about that. And I think I have learned a great deal from it. It’s affected
my own music too.

How?

Well, for example, the one thing I can always put my finger on is, it’s I think from
Feldman’s music that I first had the sense that all intervals are equally accessible
or equally useable or equally beautiful, which is curious, I also learnt that from
John Cage. All sounds are alike. But Feldman chose the intervals, rather than
allow them to happen by chance. Also, he restricted himself mostly to pitched
sounds rather than using noises.

I’ve just read one statement of Cage about your music in his article “The
Future of Music,” where he says, “Wolff’s works invariably reveal to both per-
formers and listeners energy resources in themselves of which they hadn’t been
aware, and put those energies intelligently to work.” How do you relate to this
statement? Do you think it’s a good description?

It’s a very nice one. Well yes, I mean clearly if that’s happening, then I think I’m
doing the right thing, yes.

Could you describe this process of revealing energy resources?

I think it has to do with two things. One is the fact that my music is often just
material. But not raw material exactly. It’s set up in such a way as to require
anyone who wants to seriously deal with it to exert themselves in a particular
way. Not just technically, say, to learn how to play it, but also imaginativelyâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›
how to fill out what’s to be filled out, how to use the material. And so that’s just
the individual in relation to the score. But most of my scores have to do with
groups of people. And it then turns out that a lot of the music making, and this
comes out of the score too, has to do with how the individuals relate to each
other as they play. And that in turn opens up a whole other set of circum-
stances, which of course take on a special character, but which is focused by
the music.

So you put the musicians in situations where they are producing structures
that they never thought of before.
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 53

I mean, they are faced with things to do that they usually don’t have to do, but
which are still musical at least as a basis. So it’s not as if you’re asking someone to
do something like to play a game that they’ve never played before.

Could you describe this technique of laying out of material, and how do you
give the musicians ways to actualize these materials?

Well, I suppose the simplest idea, and the one that keeps coming back in many of
my pieces, is the idea of coordinating sounds that is really, you know, the basic
idea of any music that’s played by more than one person, that you play together
or you don’t play together. And there are two extremes I think. One is that two
people more or less are improvising simultaneously, which you get say in jazz
occasionally. Or, you devise a structure with bar lines and strict rhythm. And
then you assume that there’s this sort of arbiter, or there’s a conductor or a clock
that keeps everybody together. And everybody has to toe the line. So I do away
with both of those. Occasionally, one or the other might in fact turn up. But I try
to make the coordination, or the way people play together, depend first of all on
not being predictable. That is to say, you can’t lay out a whole map and know ex-
actly the path you’re going to go. This means that you may be at a certain point in
a piece where you suddenly don’t know what’s next until someone else tells you.
That’s the one thing. The other thing is that the other person may not know that
they’re telling you something. The point of that has to do with eliminating as
much as possible total control by any one person. It’s almost impossible to con-
duct my music, for example. Everybody has to conduct, not all at once, but they
take turns. Or they do it unintentionally. The simplest way is where your coordi-
nation is say, one person plays a sound, and then another person plays a sound
that has to follow directly on the first person’s sound.

Do you employ in your early pieces too this social relations of people, or are
your early pieces strictly aesthetic? It seems like there is a kind of social situa-
tion you find in streets and everywhere mirrored in your music.

I didn’t have that notion in my head at all, I think I stumbled on it. I mean it’s not
entirely an accident, but I think I just had a chance to do that and stayed with it.
But I didn’t decide like “Now I’m going to make a social kind of music, and this
will be the right thing.” It came about in musical ways, and just for partly techni-
cal reasons. Originally it had to do with ideas about rhythm, which is that you
produce a certain kind of rhythm by these kinds of coordination and these tech-
niques of coordination, which I found you could really hardly produce any other
way. It’s a rhythm that has to do with being surprised, and having to wait on
other people to do what you want toâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›what you are supposed to do.
54 occasional pieces

In some of these it’s the simplest coordination. Player one plays a sound. And
as soon as he’s finished, player two plays a sound. Now, however, the duration of
the player one’s sound is indefinite. He can play as long or as short a time as he
wants. And player two simply, as soon as player one starts to play, he knows that
any minute, any second now, and fraction of a second, he’s going to play. But he
doesn’t know quite when. And the rhythm produced by that situation is like no
other rhythm. Especially if you imagine more complicated versions of this, like
say three or four players in different variations. So, it partly came out of some-
thing like that, to make a certain kind of rhythm. And then, you know, it’s clear
that it’s a rhythm that depends upon the people, rather than an idea about
rhythm. And if you will, there the social thing comes in.

So I know that Burdocks was played in London. I heard about this perfor-
mance from someone who participated there. What are your experiences ac-
tually? Not to talk about the sophisticated techniques of conceiving it, but
now what are your experiences in realizing it?

It depends on the pieces. I mean some pieces in the sixties for instance like
Summer, the string quartet, or the duos. Those experiences are pretty consistent,
because the musical demands are fairly precise, even though the pieces come out
differently. It’s like chamber music. Burdocks on the other hand is an orchestral
piece. It’s a large group piece. It can be done by fairly few players, but the London
performance used almost forty players. And that was a very different kind of sit-
uation. I thought it was fantastic. I mean it’s one of the finest performances I’ve
ever had. There also the techniques were quite different, because the piece as
suchâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›do you know the piece at all?

We made it once in Cologne, privately done.

But there are many different things to do. I mean certain things are quite precise,
and there are other things that are—

I remember these wheels where you can change from one to the other.

Well, that one is really fairly restrictive. I suppose that the most unrestricted one
is the one at the very end, which simply says “flying.” Anyway, it’s just a few sug-
gestive words. Nothing else is said. And of course there are many ways you could
do this. You could make sounds that suggest flying. And in the Burdocks perfor-
mance one fellow came in with a pair of little wings tied to his shoulders. That
was his representation of that one, so purely theatric. There was also in the course
of the performance a little lecture about the history of flying, so a whole theatrical
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 55

direction. And of course all of these things, some of which I’d thought of, some
of which I hadn’t, you see are available.
The thing that interested me in Burdocks was to make many different things go
on at once, and really to make a kind of a messy situation. That’s an idea close to
Cage I think. You know, you have many different things happening. But I was
also interested in having every section of the piece have its own distinct charac-
ter. In other words, you could hear a performance of Burdocks, and not know
anything about the piece, yet you knew just what everybody was doing at any
time. Again, that was nice about the performance. There was one reviewer, it was
Michael Nyman, who had taken the trouble to look at the score beforehand, and
then he sat back, and he just described exactly—he didn’t know what our plan
was, because you don’t need to do it in the order of the score, you can just make
any arrangement that you want—and he simply described in his review what
had happened. That sort of clarity remained. And yet at the same time, at any
given moment, it could be ten different things, totally different things, going on.

In writing the piece did you have the texture or the character of the plant, of
the burdocks, in mind?

I don’t know if you have much experience with burdocks. They’re a weed. And
they’re messy. People who do gardening hate them, because they get into
everything.

“Unkraut,” like we say.

Exactly, exactly. Although they also have medicinal properties. And you can make
tea out of them and things like that. It was also related to a music festival that I
organized in Vermont, which we called the “Burdock Festival.” That existed before
the piece did. So that was called “Burdock Festival” because we played the music
outdoors, and we were involved with burdocks quite a lot. Because it was just in
an area where there were a lot of burdocks.

One of the next pieces that you wrote after Burdocks is Accompaniments. I see
it as an example of music that strengthens the attention to social facts.
Because there is first a text involved. Also the title points to it. How do you
relate like in the first movement the music to the text “China: The Revolution
Continued”?

It’s very difficult. The summer before I wrote that piece—I mean I had always
been interested, but not very vigorously, in more or less political questions. But
then that interest was strongly intensified, partly through my friends Cardew and
56 occasional pieces

Rzewski. So I began to read a lot. And I decided that I would like from then on
as much as possible to associate texts with my music. One of the books I read
was this one about China and the cultural revolution, and I was struck by it and
moved by it. And I thought more people should know about it. And the same
time Rzewski had asked me for a piano piece. So that it seemed appropriate to
put those two things together especially since he’s interested in political music.
Then you asked me a technical question. You wanted to know how the music
goes with the words.

Especially since it’s a very realistic description of the hygienic situation and
its political implications. And so this very concrete, realistic text and these
chords are going along? How do you relate it to the words?

Well, I guess the chords are, like the title of the piece says, accompaniment to the
text. And what I wanted was something that was not a song, since there is a great
deal of text. There are far too many words. They are far too concrete to make a
song, like a “Lied” out of it. You couldn’t do anything like that. On the other
hand, the thing that comes to mind with that kind of text is like a recitative. And
that seems to be musically not so interesting. So, why not try to do something in
between? And it is a kind of recitative, really. Except that instead of having one
chord and then a sentence you have a chord with every syllable of the text.
The other thing I wanted to do is to preserve the prose text. On the other
hand, I did want to give it a certain amount of structure. Because it was appear-
ing in a musical situation. And so the chords are intended to do that. You don’t
use them all. They come always in groups of sixteen.

And there are always four notes, which is astonishing.

Well, that’s a very simple-minded device, I’m afraid. But it’s one that I stumbled
on, and it worked out very well harmonically. What it is simply is each sequence
of chords is based on one chord. And if you wrote four notes on a stave, and then
allow any note in that chord to be read either in bass or treble clef, you will gen-
erate fifteen more chords, and that’s why you get that particular configuration.

And that explains the shifting of ranges.

There’s more to it than that. The thing has been very carefully put together.
There’s a sequence of perhaps fifteen chords, right? Then what happens next is I
think the sequence may be repeated. Then it repeats, transposed up maybe a
minor third. But then there’s a section that you get thirty-two chords, where you
get both the original and the transposition. And then finally you get just the
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 57

transposition in the last run through the cycle. That’s a rather simple-minded
idea, but it suggests a movement upward, gradual but distinct.

That’s one relation to the text.

Yeah, progress if you will, or something like that. The other one that I’ve noticed
is just in the look of the music, which is just purely subjective. But China of
course is a very large country with many many people in it. And if you look at the
pages of the music, they’re very crowded and populous. I mean, I hadn’t written
so many notesâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›there are more notes in that single movement of the piece than
all my previous pieces of music put together. As I say, that’s trivial, that’s not a
serious thing.

How is the performance of the text related to the chords?

For each syllable of text you play one chord. And you have again, like my earlier
music—some people criticize that—you have the performers left with the
choice, because you can use the entire text or make selections from it. So long as
they make sense.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›You can’t make arbitrary selections. They still have to be in-
telligible. Because that’s partly, that’s a practical problem. Because if one did the
whole text, just that part alone would take half an hour. Any normal audience
probably wouldn’t stand that. In other words, the effect of the text would be lost,
because people would be irritated by the length of it.
The other thing is, for each run of chords there is anywhere from one syllable
of text to sixteen syllables. If it’s sixteen, there are just enough chords for every
syllable of the text, yes? If there are fewer numbers, then you’re allowed to repeat
the text until you’ve used up the chords. But you don’t have to, it’s up to the per-
former. So, if you have a one-syllable word, you could repeat that word sixteen
times, each time with a different chord. What happens there again is that the text
is turned more into a song, when you lose sight of the text’s syntactical continu-
ity and the continuity becomes a purely musical one.

And strengthens the rememberings to certain words?

Yes. There’s an element of that, right. But that’s the point where I could be criti-
cized, because I don’t specify.

You mean where you go to propaganda?

No, no it isn’t that so much. It’s where the performer goes to propaganda without
my having told him one way or the other. So in other words, the text could be
58 occasional pieces

done, I mean one could emphasize parts of the text to make it sound ridiculous,
which is not my intention.

Like Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao . . .

For instance, exactly. And I guess I fall back there on something that I’ve fallen
back on all along, the assumption that people who come to this music come to it
seriously, with good will, and they will just do the right thing. Sometimes they
don’t, and that’s the problem. Well, it’s my problem too. I mean I have set up a
situation. In other words I’ve become much less optimistic in that way.

But you offer the performer responsibility.

That’s true. But I also thereby no longer take it. And yet I still have it. Think of a
concrete example. Say you have a rather large audience, which is politically well
disposed with what you’re doing. And a performer comes along and plays that
piece in a politically irresponsible way. That’s a very bad situation. And it’s one
for which I’m basically responsible. I mean that’s something that I have not yet
resolved. I’m still, I suppose, interested in that question of energy we talked
about earlier, which stems from the fact that the performer does have to make
some of those decisions.
I mean, it’s difficult to play that piece if the words mean nothing to you. In
other words, the performer can’t function as in our sense a professional per-
former. Say you hire a musician, and you put a score in front of him, and he’s
agreed. He’s signed the contract. You have given him an advance, or whatever. He
knows he’s going to get paid, and he knows what he has to do, and he will do any-
thing that you give him to do. It could be about Mao. It could be about Kissinger,
right? It doesn’t matter, right? Okay. Well, that situation seems to me almost im-
possible. I mean that’s what I’m trying to avoid. It’s true that you might get some-
one. My problem if you will is that let’s say the man who is sympathetic to
Kissinger, I assume that he would not do that. He would not play that piece.
I mean, that’s my naive assumption.

How did you implement social reality to pieces like Changing the System?

That’s a very abstract question.

The title implies more to me than changing just musical systems.

Of course. Well, the text in that piece is where the title comes from, and that’s
what it’s about.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›It’s the same idea that is also in the Accompaniments piece,
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 59

which is one that I’m sort of “stuck” with, it’s about specific social and political
and human problems, which cannot be treated in isolation. They have to be re-
lated to the entire society in which you live. And if there’s something locally wrong,
you can’t change it properly unless you change everything. Which is, it seems
to me, what is now being demonstrated by the various communist revolutions,
or has been in various ways. And it’s really that idea that is in the text. It’s put
much more modestly than that. But I try, I think, to avoid in the pieces too ab-
stract statements. That’s why I like the Chinese text, because it’s about a very
specific practical problem, which is dealt with on both that level and on an ideo-
logical level. I mean, these people are aware of that. We may think that they’re
very simple people. But they realize that in order to make their sanitation system
work, they relate that to the thought of Mao Tse Tung. And that’s perfectly natu-
ral. To us it seems bizarre, you know, to us, that’s a technical problem and not an
ideological problem. But they understand it as being coordinated. And it’s that
idea that I’m trying to get across, to get people to be aware of. Now, you talk
about social reality. What you do is raise another problem, which is this. You
might say from a political point of view a defect of my music, of my so-called po-
litical music, which is that it is too general. In other words, it doesn’t address
itself to social reality at all. Social reality is a specific problem, which can be ana-
lyzed in a general way, say in terms of class conflict or exploitation that you can,
you know, actually document, put your finger on.
Now, to take that kind of thing and put it into music seems to be difficult, be-
cause you need the specific event or moment in order to be there in a revolution-
ary-historical situation where something is happening. And then you will make
usually a song about it. And that song will be appropriate to that time, and then
become part of the history of that time that is very different from my usual
“Einstellung” to music, “ja”? Namely that we make something that can be played
a number of times, and each time the piece will be unique. I mean it would some-
how not have a historical character.
So, as I say, I don’t know what to do about that. There are two kinds of politi-
cal music. Let’s put it that way. There’s the kind that is generated directly by your
own political experience in a given situation. The best thing I probably can think
of. You see, the thing is there are not that many, right? Most of our lives we don’t
run intoâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›maybe take part in a demonstration or something like that. Or you go
to Cuba or drop out or do something like that. But in most of our lives there isn’t
much directly happening, at the moment. I really should just speak for myself,
my rather safe, middle-class situation. So we can’t write music about it.
I don’t know if what I’m going to say now is in my music or not. But, I think
we have this notion that there is propaganda music, political music, and then
there’s the other kind of music that has these humanistic values and this univer-
sal and so forth. But I think that’s wrong. I think all music is propaganda music.
60 occasional pieces

Ah, the humanistic so-called universal music, is propaganda for that kind of
music and for the society that produces it. And first of all I think we all should
become aware of that. I mean, any piece of music expresses something, even
those pieces that deliberately try to express nothing, like certain pieces of John
Cage. That nothing is something. There is no such thing as nothing. And I don’t
see at the moment why that should be any less a kind of propaganda, even when
it’s unconscious. Although in a sense, I mean in the case of Cage it’s quite con-
scious, because he knows exactly what, you know, he has a whole philosophy of
life that he means to express by his music. And his music is a perfect example of
propaganda music. It expresses a way of understanding the world, which implies
a whole way of living and acting in the world. Most composers don’t get that far.
I mean they don’t think about those things very much. But you know they do it
more instinctively if you will. Well mostly what I’m saying is that I’m objecting
to this distinction. And then the aesthetic value of say the so-called humanistic
music as opposed to music that supports the Chinese Revolutionâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›it seems to
me that what we mean by one’s being aesthetically more limited is simply that we
have accustomed ourselves to the one aesthetic rather than to the other. I mean,
yeah, it’s a very large question. I don’t think that I can solve it.

I don’t know if I can express really my thought in English, but I just want
to say that—

So, say it in German, because you know I understand German.

Okay, was ich meine ist, daß es sich ausschließt, nein, es schließt sich nicht
aus. Aber es ist sehr hart zusammenzubringen, daß Musik, die manâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›It’s so
hard to speak German now. I see that it’s like, you know.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›On the one side
you have music that is so precisely directed politically that it has to limit itself
in its own variety to realize political goals. On the other side, you have new
music that is related politically too, but that beyond that tries to realize in its
genuine structure the ideal state this music wants to establish. I see you tried
to realize both in your work.

Now I recognize that, and it’s probably true. I do just what I can and what I have
to fall back on is at the moment the very restricted character of my political ex-
perience. And therefore I can’t do very much of this kind of what you would call
“propaganda music.”
Let me give you an example from Cardew. There is a very clear case. When he
was in Berlin he was involved in a political agitation thing having to do with a
hospital. He simply did that. He joined this group of people, communists, and
they did demonstrations, and they canvassed and so on and so forth. And in the
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 61

course of this the people he was working with didn’t even know that he was a
composer. But somewhere along the line somebody found out that Cardew was
a composer, and said, “Well listen, why don’t you write a song that we can sing
at the demonstration?” So he did write a song. Other people wrote the words
for him. And in fact at one point in the song one of them suggested a change
that he put into the music. So they wrote this song, and they sang at the demon-
strations, and it caught on. So, that’s a good example of how to express precisely
the needs of that moment. And as it happens, Cardew is a good composer, it
was a good song, a very nice song and is now part of the folk music of that part
of Berlin. You’ll find it in little books, right? So, that’s one kind of music. Now,
that kind of music can only arise through a specific political experience such as
that one. I would be delighted to devote my life to writing that kind of music,
but honestly can’t do it, at the moment anyway, unless I’m willing to give up
everything—

And I think the United States is not provided for this type of composing.

Well, not entirely. I mean we have a tradition, which is somewhat submerged, of


political music. I’ve just been learning about it, and it’s very beautiful and very
extensive.

The music of the South somehow?

Well, the South. And then there’s the labor movement that has a tremendous
amount of music associated with it, much of which, as I say, you don’t hear much.
And occasionally it surfaces through somebody like Dylan, who makes it very
personal and makes it very subjective. But he is ultimately related. His great
master is a man called Woody Guthrie. Well, I’m just learning it myself. There is
a lot of stuff there. So there is a tradition that exists. It gets submerged and is
completely submerged now commercially by the rock and roll scene and by the
whole rock business.
But there are some, Pete Seeger, a famous example of somebody who is a folk
singer who has been involved in political causes for a long, long time. You have
the equivalent in Germany with Eisler and that whole tradition, you know. He’s
getting a kind of renaissance, and that’s all that side of it. In the meantime, and
also in my case because of my background and my experience and what people
want me to do, I still want to write my music. You know, I can’t sit around and
wait. So I do the other things. And in the other things I try to—and that’s what
you were talking about over here—I try to possibly relate them at least to a polit-
ical orientation that seems to me progressive, and that of course is much more
generalized.
62 occasional pieces

Frederic Rzewski wrote a song called “Apolitical Intellectuals.” And I think


it belongs to a lot of the American artists. Why are they so apolitical?

Well, I don’t know all the reasons. But again it’s a political position that they’re
maintaining. Because for them to be apolitical is a kind of protest. Avant-garde
musicians imagine themselves to be in a protest situation. That’s their politics. For
us political music has invariably an element of popular music going on, it’s music
for larger groups of people, whereas avant-garde music has a very, very small audi-
ence. Maybe Cage has a larger audience but really more for himself, his personality
and for his ideas and for his books and his presence than perhaps for his music.
And the other people, they have their audiences, but they’re mostly concentrated
in New York and a few spots on the West Coast. And well, it’s very tiny. It’s a very
esoteric movement, whereas any kind of political statement assumes a realistically
sized group. Now that automatically suggests, you know, music made for masses of
people. And that immediately to a composer suggests either commercialized pop
music, which is regarded as essentially degenerate or in any case manipulated by
commercial interests. Well, you know there’s some very interesting music there.
And I think people like Reich and Glass are aware of that. There’s a certain relation-
ship between the way they present their musics and the way rock and roll music is
presented. But still, generally speaking, that music is regarded with some distrust.
And then the other kind of music that’s sort of for larger groups of people is the
old bourgeois music, which some of us like, some of us don’t, but essentially we
all agree that we don’t want to write Beethoven or Brahms or that kind of thing.
And then finally there’s something that I guess in my education has simply
beenâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›you’re just not exposed to it, neither at school or at university—the folk
music of this country. There were people in college that were sort of devotees of
it. They had their guitars and so forth and played this music. But on the whole, it
was a minority. And people seriously interested in music were not interested in
that. It’s a kind of cultural—

Ya, and to really try to function here as a political musician goes right into
the commercial mechanism.

Well, that’s the danger.

That’s one reason possibly for the “apolitical intellectuals.” It’s just resigna-
tion in not having access to the political scene.

There’s something like that. But I think that Rzewski’s song is meant to be an
attack on that. And it is certainly a position that can be questioned, that you
assume that there’s nothing to be done.
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 63

Then I think beyond that. It has something to do with “the” American too, and
in Cage because it’s somehow in the Song Books and his Thoreau statement
that the best government is the government that governs least, and that every
American is somehow a stubborn, independent—

That’s it, that’s it, an anarchic individualism, yes.

So this kind of solidarizing is only possible under high social pressure.

Yeah, I mean America has a tradition of utopian communities. But that’s in a


sense a positive side. But it’s again a very small and isolated thing. Yeah, now your
point is right, that we have a very strong tradition of independence.

What are your projects now to realize yourself as a socially conscious


composer?

I try to do most of the things that I do with other people. That’s quite a practical
consideration, because I’m not that good a performer. So it would be difficult
for me to carry anything off by myself. But I try wherever possible to encourage
group activity, to involve as many people as possible with other composers, dis-
courage competitive careerism if you will. It’s something I learned from Cage
long before I was interested in communism. He always, I mean, that was what
was so beautiful about the early fifties, that it was really a group. To be sure, it
was just these four people, and each has gone his separate way. But the idea was
that we would appear together. And everything was done so that all of us would
be involved wherever possible. And there’s quite a bit of this, I think, that goes
on, say, with Reich and Glass. Glass really means an ensemble of four or five
people. And this whole movement of making up groups, I think that can
be useful.

This community feeling is one of the best moments you get from his music.

Frederic is very strong on it, and Garrett List is strong on it.

So they all reestablish somehow a tribal feeling with their music.

Okay, yeah, something like that. Or just give, communicate a sense of coopera-
tion, and above all the pleasure that it gives. In other words to satisfy yourself
you don’t need to be a winner, but that a whole group of people, first the musi-
cians, and eventually musicians and audience, who make a community that
enjoys itself together. That’s what Changing the System is about too.
64 occasional pieces

So what are you writing next? Do you integrate these kinds of folk music
experiences you’re making at the present time?

That’s extremely difficult to do. That’s because partly my own musical back-
ground is limited.

That’s the background where we are, here at Harvard.

Yes, right now, I didn’t learn anything musical from Harvard at all. But what I’m
doing right now for instance, I’m just finishing a piece that I started doing in
Berlin, which is a string quartet, which is not exactly peoples’ music. But here
you can see the various forces at work. Where I am at Dartmouth we have a res-
ident string quartet, and it seemed nice to do a piece for them. And then it turned
out they wanted a piece. I suddenly came to the realization that my music is
really very esoteric in its character. It’s very introverted and very “refined.” And I
got tired of that. For instance, I’ve always noticed that I have many friends to
whom my music means nothing, friends of mine, not just people out in the
street, but people who in other respects I communicate with very well. That’s
ridiculous. Every time I hear them say, “Ooooh, come, let’s hear some of your
music!” I feel apologetic about it, I mean like, “You’re not gonna like it.” You know.

It’s just a burdock, your music.

Well, Burdocks is already a step out of that, because Burdocks can be done in a
way that a lot of people enjoy it.

I’m thinking of the plant burdock now, that it hurts.

No, they really don’t hurt so much. They stick. They’re a nuisance, an irritation
rather than a pain. Anyway, so that bothered me. And so I felt quite simply to try
to do something that would be more successful to do, that people might like to
listen to without, you know, being meretricious about it.

How?

For instance, the question of rhythm and of continuity, I mean it has very serious
technical implications, because it’s always connected. Like in my early music,
one thing that makes it so “sophisticated” and refined is this very delicate sort of
tracelike effect. I mean it’s really very like Webern, my music, you know, and the
same kind of response. There aren’t a whole lot of people who really want to hear
Webern. It’s beautiful music, it’s exquisite, it’s perfect in its kind, but it’s a very
Convers ation w ith Walter Z imme r mann ( 1976) 65

small world that it lives in.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›For instance in Accompaniments, the only reason for
those chords is just the sonority, you know? And the chords have a certain har-
monic consistency. And they’re nice to listen to. Now, they are not the old I–V
chords, right, they are not the harmonic functional harmony things. I mean,
I don’t want to do that either, I don’t want to become sort of archaistic, or regres-
sive, or neo-this and neo-that.

I think you can reestablish it from the side of rhythm and what you call
continuity.

But there again, I don’t want to do it simply, I don’t want to write sonatas again.
I don’t want to lose all the ground I think we’ve gained the last twenty years.

Like probably Cardew does, whose courage to make tabula rasa is


astonishing.

He raises the problems in a very acute way, because he writes what is basically
neoromantic music. And I don’t quite understand that.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›W hereas I’m trying to
make a sound that isâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›well, I don’t do this consciously. I’ve been noticing my
music now as a kind ofâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›if it’s related to the sound of some other music, proba-
bly most to a rather odd combination, of Satie and Ives.

This conversation took place in 1975 in the Harvard Square Wursthaus, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
with Bavarian music playing in the background. It was included in Walter Zimmermann’s
book Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians, Vancouver, 1976. The above
version has some cuts and corrections.
11

Frederic Rzewski, The People United


Will Never Be Defeated (1978)

With the formation in Chile of the Unidad Popular in 1969 and the left coalition
under Salvadore Allende, there emerged a new cultural movement of remarkable
vitality. Its music drew on the resources of both indigenous folk and classical tradi-
tions, and conservatory trained musicians took part together with folk singers.
Melodies of popular songs might be harmonized in new, experimental ways and
structured with the refinements of distinctive compositions. Or, on the other hand,
folk instruments, many of which are native Indian, would be used in compositions
based on classical models. The resources of the Western classical tradition were
put to use for a music that was truly popular—without being either simplistically
primitive or commercially meretricious. The underlying force of this cultural move-
ment was a commitment to the struggle for the socialist transformation of Chile.
Frederic Rzewski’s piano piece, comprising thirty-six variations, is a tribute to
this cultural movement and a musical expression of solidarity with the forces and
traditions that inspired and helped shape it. The composition, dated September–
October, 1975, is dedicated to Ursula Oppens. The song on which the variations
are based was written by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun; it is probably the best-
known to have come out of the Chilean new song movement, and since the coup
and Pinochet dictatorship it has become a kind of international anthem of the
Chilean resistance.
In the context of Rzewski’s own musical background, these variations represent
a noteworthy development. Both as pianist and composer he had been closely
involved in the avant-garde and experimental movements of the sixties. He had
worked with, among others, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage. By the early seventies,
however (at about the same time as a number of other composers associated with
the avant-garde, including Cornelius Cardew, Erhard Grosskopf, and Garrett List),
he had started writing music with political subjects, notably the powerful Coming
Together. This music included elements that recalled rock and the musics of Terry
Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich (open, diatonic or modal sonorities, a steady

67
68 occasional pieces

beat, electric instruments). But because of the political texts associated with it, it
expressed a distinctive urgency. It was also at about this time that Rzewski, after
considerable experience in improvisation in the group Musica Elettronica Viva and
solo, began to associate himself with jazz musicians like Anthony Braxton and
Steve Lacy, and developed an interest in popular political music, including songs of
the Italian left, the songs of Hanns Eisler, the new Latin American music from Cuba
and Chile, the Puerto Rican folk music in New York and the songs of Mike Glick.
In the variations, many of these elements come together, along with yet
others, in a remarkable amalgam. The expansiveness of the piece’s structure, the
virtuosity of the piano writing, the use of tonal harmony, all bear some resem-
blance to Romantic piano music. Yet the large dimension, based on a carefully
worked out, intricate underlying structure, also suggests features of avant-garde
writing—and may recall the elaborate formal arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg
Variations. The piano writing includes explorations of new sonorities, uses of ex-
treme register, extended repeated note sounds, the catching of harmonics after a
chord attack, as well as whistling by the pianist, crying out, slamming the piano
lid, all techniques suggesting experimental music—and the free, informal kind
of performing sometimes found in blues and jazz. Tonality too is used experi-
mentally, as in the combinations of modal writing and the serial-like organiza-
tion of sets of variations around restricted interval combinations. There are also
suggestions of Rzewski’s jazz related piano improvising.
The variety of elements in the piece is, finally, coordinated and synthesized by
both the content and the structure of the whole composition. The content, the
meaning and feeling that the piece conveys, is an extended projection of the content
of the song on which it is based. The music has a kind of program, not literalistic, but
mostly suggestive. It is occasionally indicated in the playing directions: “with deter-
mination,” “delicate but firm,” “confidently,” “struggling,” “dreamlike, frozen,” “with
foreboding,” “recklessly,” “optimistically,” “expansive, with a victorious feeling,”
“with energy,” “relentless, uncompromising,” “in a militant manner,” “tenderly, and
with hopeful expression.” The music evokes some of the anguish of struggle and
moments of defeat. It includes lyrical and reflective interludes. But these are subor-
dinated to a feeling of confidence and united effort. The Chilean struggle is also
both evoked and linked beyond itself to kindred movements throughout the world
(by quotation of and allusion to the Eisler-Brecht “Solidarity Song” and the Italian
traditional socialist song “Bandiera Rossa.”) One further, pervasive aspect of the
music’s content is expressed through its structural procedures. These can be seen to
represent the force of logic (the “logic of history”), reason (the “reasonableness of
justice”) and discipline, as they focus and liberate creative, revolutionary energies.
The music’s formal logic is too extensive to describe in detail. Its outlines,
I think, emerge clearly as one hears the music. The important point is that this
musical logic is not an arbitrary, formalistic exercise, but is integral to the
Freder ic R z ewsk i, The Peo ple Un ited Wi l l Never B e De f eated ( 1978) 69

content of the music. For example, in a detail: the melodies of the songs that are
quoted are not just dropped into the music but emerge from its fabric; they
derive, in the sequence of their pitch intervals, from the developing variations of
the opening “El Pueblo” song. As a whole—to sketch it out—the opening song
is set in thirty-six bars, which are followed by thirty-six variations, and then an
expanded repetition of the song setting. Throughout the variations there is a
continuous cross-referencing of motifs, harmonic procedures, rhythms, and dy-
namic sequences. These in turn are contained within the organization of the var-
iations. The variations are grouped in six sets of six. The sixth variation of a set,
itself in six parts, consists of a summing up of the previous five variations of the
set, with a final sixth part of new or transitional material. (It has been suggested
that the first five variations of a set make up the fingers of a hand, and the sixth
unites them to make a fist.) This procedure is followed rigorously throughout
the first four sets of six variations; each of the variations is in twenty-four bars,
the first five of a set subdivided equally into twelve plus twelve bars, and the sixth
recapitulating each previous variation in four bars plus a final four bars of new
material. In the fifth set of variations (numbers 25 through 30), there is some
expansion at the third variation; cadenza-like material appears and the articula-
tion of individual variations is less self-contained, though the sixth variation of
the set again clarifies by uniting what preceded. Finally, the sixth set of variations
(31 through 36) becomes a gathering together of elements of all the preceding
thirty variations—the overall structure of the piece is thus a reflection of the
structure of its constituent parts. In this sixth set, the first variation draws to-
gether, in units of four bars each, elements of the first variation of the first set, the
first of the second set, the first of the third, and so on. The second to fifth varia-
tions of this last set proceed similarly. In the sixth variation of the set, the thirty-
sixth and last of the entire piece, the preceding five variations are summed up, even
as they had been a summation of the preceding thirty variations. Elements of each
variation are now compressed into a fraction of a bar. Technically this is a kind of
stretto, the procedure in a fugue that brings the entrances of individual voices closer
and closer together; though here the voices (or elements of individual variations)
are not over-layed but compressed and juxtaposed in increasingly rapid sequence.
The effect is of extraordinary intensification, which, by virtue of the logic of repeti-
tion is also both clarification and unification. The movement of the whole piece is
toward a new unity—an image of popular unity—made up of related but diverse,
developing elements (not to be confused with uniformity), coordinated and
achieved by a blend of irresistable logic and spontaneous expression.

Written in 1978 as liner notes for Ursula Oppens’ recording of The People United Will Never Be
Defeated, Vanguard VSD 71248.
12

On Political Texts and New Music (1980)

The renewed, and new, political awareness emerging in the later 1960s in the
United States and parts of Europe was apparent also in a variety of music—folk
and popular (drawing on an older, sometimes submerged, tradition), jazz (long
associated with the struggles of blacks), and avant-garde. The association of ele-
ments of the latter with progressive politics had its precedent too, for example, in
the work of Hanns Eisler in the late twenties, of the American composers of the
Composers’ Collective in the thirties,1 and of Luigi Nono starting in the fifties.
By the late sixties and early seventies, a number of younger composers of the
avant-garde began to associate their music explicitly with political preoccupa-
tions. Among these (the list is not exhaustive) were Cornelius Cardew and Dave
Smith in England, Erhard Grosskopf and Nicolaus A. Huber in Germany (Hans
Werner Henze, though in a somewhat older generation and a more eclectic tra-
dition of composing, might also be mentioned), Louis Andriessen and Peter
Schat in Holland, Yuji Takahashi from Japan, and Garrett List, Frederic Rzewski,
and myself in the United States. All these composers support some form of dem-
ocratic socialism. (As far as I know, no composer associated with the post World
War II avant-garde has made an explicit connection of his music with a conserv-
ative political position.) John Cage’s influential work is a special case. Although
he has maintained firmly that music must have no “propaganda” function, he
nevertheless represents, in both his music and his writings, an individualist-
anarchist position close to the tradition of Thoreau.2 The ways in which music
and political content can be associated are of course various, and the questions
raised by such an association are many. Here I only attempt to give an account of
some of my own work, primarily in the musical setting of texts with an explicit
political content, and to consider some of the questions I have found raised by it.

1
See R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Baltimore, MD:
Penguin Books, 1973).
2
See, for example, his collection of writings M (Middletown: CT: Wesleyan University Press,
1973). A discussion of Cage’s use of language in musical composition and its political implications
would be of great interest, but is beyond the scope of these notes.

71
72 occasional pieces

Two general sets of questions are on the horizon of the works that I will dis-
cuss. The first has to do with the “literary” aspect of these works, or, more gener-
ally, the sense in which they may be formalized as cultural products. For the
most part, the texts set to music are not as such “literary,” not poems or plays.
They are documentary, taken from letters, interviews, speeches, manifestos, and
the like (this is also the case with a number of the works by the composers men-
tioned above).3 Their original intent is direct political statement. The use of such
texts for musical setting of course formalizes them in a new way. In practical
terms, the formalization inherent in the context of their presentation may be
very different—the difference, for example, between a speech delivered to a po-
litically concerned group and the same speech set to music and performed for a
concert audience. A crucial point here, by which to gauge the degree and kind of
this difference, is the class character of the politically concerned group and of the
concert audience. If the group and audience are close in class interest, the differ-
ence in formalization may not matter very much. Another practical factor will be
the purpose, or the occasion, of the speech and of the speech-set-to-music,
whether, for instance, there is a specifically hortative intention or a more gener-
ally commemorative one. Very generally, we are dealing here with the familiar
point that music, being nonverbal, will inevitably have some formalizing effect
on any verbal material associated with it; but then, this formalization in turn may
well intensify the expressive content of the combination of text and music, may
in fact cause a new “content” or meaning to appear. (It is worth mentioning that
the questions raised by the musical setting of nonliterary texts have some affinity
with those raised by the “documentary” literature that began appearing in the
late 1960s, for instance, the plays of Rolf Hochhuth and Peter Weiss.)
The second general set of questions related to the pieces I will discuss has to
do with the music’s connection to the avant-garde. I should say first that the term
“avant-garde,” which I have so far used very broadly, might be distinguished from
“experimental” in the case of music. Leading representatives of the former are
such continental European composers as Boulez and Stockhausen, while the
latter, experimental music, is initially and principally an American and English
phenomenon whose central figure is John Cage.4 Composers of music with ex-
plicit political content, however, come from both camps. The main issue here is
the compatibility of the situation of new music with progressive political content.

For earlier examples one might cite Hanns Eisler’s Zeitungsausschnitte and Luigi Nono’s Il canto
3

sospeso, whose texts are taken from letters of prisoners of war written during World War II.
4
See Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1974); compare also, in the context of an extended discussion of the notion of “avant garde,”
Michael Calinescu, Faces of Modernity (Bloomington, IN: 1978), 144–45. A general, critical view of
the new music movement as a whole, during the 1960s and 1970s, can be found in Enrico Fubini,
Musica e linguaggio nell’estetica contemporanea (Torino: G. Einaudi 1973), 116–33.
O n Political Te xts and Ne w Mus i c ( 1980) 73

Two polar positions can be exemplified: the one by Cornelius Cardew, who
insists that there can be no politically effective avant-garde art and rejects his
own earlier (and distinguished) work in experimental music in favor of musical
styles related either to a folk and popular tradition or to the most expressive ele-
ments of nineteenth-century Romantic art music; and the other by Luigi Nono,
a long time member of the Italian communist party, who composes in an un-
compromisingly advanced manner, making full use of serial techniques and elec-
tronics. The difficulties raised by the avant-garde context are, principally, of three
kinds. One is the drive toward extreme individualism, the compulsion to be dif-
ferent in one’s work, so that an advanced position is staked out. The results may
be a wasteful competitiveness; the risk of one’s work being turned into a novelty
product for commercial advantage; or the risk of being isolated. Another, famil-
iar problem inherent in the avant-garde is its tendency to esotericism or ivory-
towerism—which makes impossible the wider communication necessary for
political content. To be sure, these difficulties are symptomatic of a disordered
cultural situation; and, if they are embraced consciously, may serve to concen-
trate a critical attack on that cultural situation.5
Another, potentially positive feature of avant-garde work is its encourage-
ment to technical experimentation and a continuing development of formal and
technical resources. But one last question remains. For whom is the cultural
work being done? What, for example, will be a musician’s position before a po-
litically progressive audience, or simply a working class audience, whose cultural
experience has largely been determined by a corrupt and exploitative commer-
cial “popular” art?
In the late 1960s, trying to find ways of providing new music for nonprofes-
sional performers, including people with no previous practical musical experi-
ence, I made a set of pieces consisting only of brief prose instructions.6 There was
no need to be able to read musical notation. The instructions were the scores,
characterized by a combination of precise specifications and general, suggestive
guidance, so as to enable the performers both to focus their playing and yet to
play freely. I intended a kind of exploratory improvisation, free of specialized
virtuosity and of the technical and psychological pressures associated with con-
cert performance. I also hoped to bring about among the players a feeling for
self-imposed discipline as well as individual freedom, both in turn made possi-
ble, and given resonance, by their need to work together.

5
See Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press,
1976), 84–86.
6
Prose Collection, Experimental Music Catalogue (London: privately printed, 1970 and 1974),
and in George Quasha, ed., An Active Anthology (Fremont, MI: Sumac Press, 1974), 123–26. Now
also available from Frog Peak Music.
74 occasional pieces

Making these pieces I found myself dealing very directly with primary musi-
cal materials and resources, for example, with any person’s capacity to produce a
rhythmically articulated sound with any means available, including the parts of
one’s body, and any person’s capacity to use her or his voice musically. The pieces
thus include four songs. The texts are brief: “Crazy Mad Love”; a name, to be
chosen by the singer (variable therefore from performance to performance);
“No More Beer” together with “Fee Fie Fo Fum”; “You Blew It.” Generally, the
texts are used as sound material, usually with some accompanying instrumental
material. They are broken down into syllables and phonemes or even just single
letters from which the voice must make a sound. These elements are variously
repeated, like pitches in a scale or the timbres of a set of instruments. Here is one
example (the complete song):

Crazy Mad Love


Number of articulations (of any kind) per word, using any of the
three title words, in any sequence and freely repeated:
5 2 1 2 11 2 1 3 3 1 2
“One” articulation must be managed as far as possible, particularly
with the two syllable word; observe the numbers in the sequence given,
which can be repeated as often as desired and cut off at any point;
spaces, pauses between numbers (articulations of single words) are free.
The same numbers and requirements apply to each nonvocal pro-
duction of a sound. Include at least one vocal and one nonvocal playing
in any performance.
From one to six people can play.

Because the texts are short and their elements repeated, though fragmented,
their denotative sense still emerges. For performance, the texts, on the one hand,
when fragmented, provide sound material (including, in the above example, a
specific guide for nonvocal sounds); on the other hand, the texts’ semantic con-
tent and expressive suggestiveness give direction to the particular shaping of the
sound material. The origins of the texts are casual and personal: a half-remem-
bered phrase from a rock ’n’ roll song, an exchange between a child and his uncle;
“you blew it” was a sudden, angry response to a Nixon speech on Vietnam war
policy. But these personal associations are not indicated in the music; the words
of the texts are let go, so to speak, for the performers to find and make their own
associations from them. Each text has its range of expressive possibilities that
may be variously chosen and individualized (re-individualized, in fact).
These pieces contain no overt political statement. Yet, the way they function
(which, incidentally, is partly made possible by the fact that the “scores” are
themselves verbal instructions rather than traditional symbolic notations) could
O n Political Te xts and Ne w Mus i c ( 1980) 75

be seen to have political implications. The requirement of cooperative, more or


less leaderless performance and its flexible conditions suggest a kind of demo-
cratic libertarianism and the spirit of some of the movements of alternate, com-
munal social life characteristic of the late sixties (this was not my conscious in-
tention, but I was interested and sympathetic to the ideas of these movements at
that time). In retrospect, however, though positive in a number of ways, the
communal movements were essentially apolitical, that is, they set out to practice
social alternatives without any coherent plan for changing society as a whole,
and therefore, in the end, would be compelled to depend on it. This illusory self-�
sufficiency, a kind of utopianism, must also be said to characterize these compo-
sitions. Their political weakness lies in a disregard of the audience, of a potential
representation of larger social elements. To put it another way, the hope implied
in the music, that the audience will want to become performers themselves, that
the music, because technically accessible to performance by anyone willing to
try, could thus function educationally—this hope seems to have an inadequate
basis. The difficulty can also be seen in a technical consideration: the lack of
guidance in the music for rhythmic articulation. This vagueness about rhythm
tends to cause an inward, contemplative and “timeless” feeling in the sound pro-
duction, and to inhibit an outward projection of sound that could extend a sense
of energy instead of enclosing it. In fact, the music is most liable to break away
from this tendency to self-enclosure through the song texts. Finally, though,
these texts too have their limitations, mostly in being so brief. Repeated, as said,
they become intelligible (semantically, linguistically). But extended repetition
can also neutralize their individual force, making them more and more like
“meaningless” incantation.
My next attempt at setting a text was in a solo piano piece in which the pianist
must also speak or sing, Accompaniments, written in 1972 for the composer and
pianist Frederic Rzewski.7 The piece is in four parts; the first sets the text, the
remainder, partly with accompanying percussion also played by the pianist, is a
kind of musical aftermath of the text, a commentary on it, and a sound landscape
through which it can resonate. The text, taken from Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle’s
China: The Revolution Continued (New York, 1970), consists of remarks transcribed

7
The music is published by C. F. Peters, New York, and has been recorded by Rzewski on CRI
S-357. Rzewski had recently written a particularly impressive piece for instrumental ensemble with a
speaker, Coming Together (recorded on Opus One 20). Occasionally, he would perform this piece
himself as a solo, playing the instrumental material on the piano and speaking the text as well—a
remarkable feat, because the music and speaking run without pause in a fairly rapid, unbroken
rhythm for nearly twenty-five minutes. It was this performance that suggested to me asking the pian-
ist both to play on the keyboard and at the same time use his voice. A critical discussion, from a polit-
ical perspective, of both Accompaniments and Coming Together can be found in Cornelius Cardew,
Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (London: Latimer, 1974), 64–77.
76 occasional pieces

by them of a veterinarian and a midwife in the village of Liu Ling in the Yenan
area of northwest China. The speakers describe the development of their work
as it was affected by the Cultural Revolution. I chose the text because of its
immediacy—the sense of the speakers’ presence and their direct way of talking;
and because of their clear political awareness. They describe and illustrate how
ordinary, daily problems, having to do with sanitation and contraception, are
dealt with from a consciously political point of view. Free of rhetoric or abstract
dogma, a sense of progress through political and educational struggle is con-
veyed with matter-of-fact good humor and optimism.
This is how the text is set. Units of lengths varying from one to sixteen sylla-
bles are marked off; sometimes a unit will coincide with a semantic continuity,
sometimes not. Here, for example, is a sequence of nine units:

Not everyone looks after their latrines properly. Dry earth


must be
used for covering them. There must be no flies.
we have got quite a long way with
our hygienic work, but not the whole way.
That is why unremitting propaganda is needed against
the bad old habits.

For each unit there is a sequence of sixteen (and sometimes thirty-two: a se-
quence plus its transposition) four-note chords, each chord different but related
harmonically to the others in the sequence. The pianist speaks or sings the text,
accompanying each of its syllables with one of the chords (melisma is excluded).
The pianist is free (a) in the ways he or she projects the text, that is, whether by
speaking or by any kinds of singing; (b) in the choice of pitches, if singing (that
is, no pitches are specified for the text); (c) in the choice of chords from a se-
quence, so long as no chord is repeated; (d) in the rhythm or spacing of the
chords; (e) in the number of repetitions of a unit of text that has eight or fewer
syllables, so long as no more than sixteen chords, each different, are used (thus,
in the example above, the first, fourth, sixth, and eighth units cannot be repeated,
while the second could be repeated up to three times, the third up to seven times,
the fifth and seventh once, and the ninth twice; no repetitions, however, are
obligatory, and hence not all the chords in a sequence will necessarily be played);
and finally, (f) the pianist is free to make a selection of units from the text as a
whole—since the text is long and a complete presentation of it would not be
appropriate in most performing situations. Instructions also specify that the
choices made, though variable and flexible, should allow a coherent sense of the
text to emerge. The text thus serves as a guide to performance, both in detail and
as a whole. It requires of the performer full attention to its meaning before it can
O n Political Te xts and Ne w Mus i c ( 1980) 77

be used (in this respect it is like the prose instructions that made up the pieces
described previously).
The performer must function in two ways, one professional and specialized, as
pianist, the other nonprofessional—a way shared with any number of people, as
speaker or singer. The latter requires a readjustment of the notion of professional-
ism and is intended to overcome some of the isolating features of a specialized
activity. These two ways correspond here respectively to music and text (the text
would be far more widely accessible to performance than the music). The inter-
change implied between the two ways in which the performer must work is also
represented in what actually happens when text and music are performed to-
gether. On the one hand, the rhythm of the text, the way one speaks its language,
tends to affect the rhythm of the accompanying chords. Though the player may
choose, as he is free to do, to impose on the text’s language independent rhythmic
shapes, the text, because of its longer and explicit continuities of statement, will
keep reasserting its own rhythm. On the other hand, the pitch at which the text
might be sung, which is free of any explicit specification, will tend to be drawn
into relation with the (given) pitch configurations of the accompanying chords.
Why, then, has the text been set in this way? As indicated, for the performer:
so that there is something to grapple with which will require both reflection and
independent choice. (One could almost say that a process of education is sug-
gested for the performer, which she or he will exemplify, reflecting the education
described in the text.) The composition itself formalizes an everyday, documen-
tary text that is politically illustrative: in order to publicize it (the text in its book
communicates only to the individual reader), to return it to public speech in new
situations, and, with the music, to give it expressive force. (For myself, inciden-
tally, it was also a matter of discovering the poetry in this apparently ordinary,
prosaic material—and attempting to publicize that.)
More particularly, breaking up the text into phrases by a syllable count and
matching each syllable to a chord was intended to express a certain sobriety and
discipline, and ground the vocal expression in a certain austerity (hence the ab-
sence of melisma). The chords were made to give the music a full, resonant
sound; to articulate a musical structure, like a pattern of stanzas, with which the
text must mesh; and, by their harmonic logic, to represent a disciplined, forward
movement (like the one described by the text). Each individual sixteen-chord
sequence (corresponding to the individual line of a stanza) consists of all the
ways one four-note chord can be read if, when the chord is written on one stave,
the notes in the chord are read in all the possible combinations produced by re-
ferring each note to either treble or bass clef. This always results in sixteen chords
that generate one another harmonically in such a way that, as the sequence pro-
ceeds, a logic of development is also generated, and the sequence has the effect of
an extended cadence that ends not on a point of return, as in functional harmony,
78 occasional pieces

but at a new, yet logically necessary conclusion. The music begins with thirty
different sequences—the first section (or stanza); these are then repeated, with
some shifting in their order—a second section; thirty sequences of thirty-two
chords each follow, each sequence a combination of one of the first thirty and its
transposition a major third higher—a third section; and, finally, the last section
consists of fifteen sequences from those that had been transposed up in the pre-
vious section. Of course, unless the player chooses to use all the material (the
exceptional case), this structure will not be completely represented in any one
performance; it is an available scaffolding.
Unlike the earlier prose pieces, the first part of Accompaniments sets a text with
a clearly political content, of some length; and, because professional (and solo)
performance is involved, it is far more detailed and demanding in its musical
scoring. Further, the scoring is such that a sound of some strength and rhythmic
movement is assured; the music as a whole will have an extroverted character.
But the music and the treatment of the text, as well as the range of freedom left
to the performer, are still “experimental.” There are risks entailed. Partly, I think,
these are valuable. For instance, they require of the performer a clear commit-
ment and a special alertness, and may have a similar effect on an audience.
However, it is still the case that the experimental character of the setting of the
text may appear, to certain audiences, simply eccentric, and worse, may make
the text itself seem to be ridiculous. It may be that there is too great a strain, or
contradiction, between this kind of text and the way it has been formalized.
The last piece I will discuss represents, among other things, an attempt to de-
limit the range of contradiction between text and setting.
Wobbly Music8 is a piece for mixed chorus and a group of instruments (piano
or electric piano, guitar, two melody instruments, as available; others may be
used as well). It was written between 1974 and 1975 for a student and community
group directed by Neely Bruce at Wesleyan University in Middletown,
Connecticut. It is a longer piece (about thirty-five minutes), made up of a series
of “numbers” (eight altogether), like a cantata. The texts relate to the history and
principles of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, more familiarly
known as “Wobblies,” the most progressive and revolutionary force of large
scope in the labor movement in the United States. It was also a movement distin-
guished by its tradition of militant and humorous songs.9

Published by C. F. Peters, New York.


8

A good collection of material from and about the Wobblies can be found in Joyce L. Kornbluh,
9

Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press 1964). See also,
Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York:
Quadrangle Books, 1974). The texts used in Wobbly Music can be found in Kornbluh and in William
D. Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1929;
reprinted 1974).
O n Political Te xts and Ne w Mus i c ( 1980) 79

The first three numbers of the piece are songs from this tradition: “Bread and
Roses,” written during the celebrated, and successful, strike in the mills at
Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, a beautiful song expressing the determination
and aspirations of the women whose role in the strike had been decisive (it has
been revived by the Women’s Movement in the 1960s); “John Golden and the
Lawrence Strike,” a song, using an older hymn tune (“A Little Talk with Jesus”),
with text by the Wobblies’ most famous song writer, Joe Hill, describing some of
the specific circumstances of the strike, in particular, the mill owners’ attempt to
neutralize the Wobbly-led strikers through accommodating leaders of the estab-
lished unions ( John Golden—“he’ll settle any strike if there is coin in sight”—is
their agent); and “The Preacher and the Slave,” also known as “Pie in the Sky,”
again set to an older hymn, a sentimental favorite of the Salvation Army (“Sweet
By and By”), with new words by Joe Hill that are a devastating parody of the
original text’s soothing promises of a better life in the distant hereafter.10
After these three songs there is an instrumental interlude, a kind of overture
to the four numbers that follow (and an interval in which the singers can rest).
The first of these sets the text of the preamble to the IWW constitution of 1908,
the general principles of the movement. Next comes a new setting of the text of the
second song, “John Golden and the Lawrence Strike”; a setting of an excerpt from
a speech made by Arturo Giovannitti, one of the main strike leaders, who had
been framed on a charge of murder in order to have him out of the way, “If there
was any violence”; and the closing number, “It was a wonderful strike,” which
sets an excerpt from a speech by Bill Haywood, the Wobblies’ most prominent
national leader, summarizing the significance and main achievements of the
Lawrence strike after its successful conclusion.
The songs and text settings are for the whole singing group. There are no solos
and no distribution of parts by the usual soprano, alto, tenor, and bass categories.
The basis of the singing is unison or heterophonic; all pitches are given in treble
clef, each voice to sing in its comfortable octave. In two of the numbers the me-
lodic lines, sometimes single, sometimes in two pairs, are made up of units of a
few notes (mostly from one to three) passed back and forth between subdivi-
sions of the chorus (up to four subdivisions, each including representatives from
the various voice ranges). This makes a kind of counterpoint in space as the
sound moves from group to group of singers, and allows the subgroups’ individ-
uality to emerge while requiring the whole chorus’s shared effort of coordination
to produce the sum of the text and music. In this way too the text can be more
clearly articulated and intelligible—which would be impossible with the usual

10
Texts and music of these songs in Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, eds., Songs of Work and Protest
(New York: Dover Books, 1973 and Barnie Stavis and Frank Harmon, eds., Songs of Joe Hill (New
York: Oak Publications, 1955).
80 occasional pieces

counterpoint of vertically simultaneous lines. The text is not represented simply


by one homogeneous mass voice: you are meant to hear individualized voices
and the drama of the voices’ helping one another to carry the meaning on.
The text guides the music closely because, in this case, it has both a clarity and
comprehensiveness of statement that I thought required as direct a setting as
possible. Its semantic movement, through phrase, sentence, and paragraph, in-
stigated, in detail, the note rhythms, and determined, overall, the music’s struc-
tural articulations. (There is occasional melisma, but usually to make the rhyth-
mic adjustment between text and music easier.) The pitch organization of the
music is drawn from the first three songs, whose tunes are associated with the
political movement that the texts represent. The pitches of these tunes are set up
as scales (interval sequences), which then undergo a series of transformations
(various kinds of transposition) that move them, as it were, forward harmoni-
cally (as in Accompaniments, the harmonic procedure is not self-enclosed, with
return to a tonic, but evolutionary). One exception to this procedure is the
number “If there was any violence.” There the pitch material is mostly confined
to the instrumental accompaniment, while the voices speak or declaim without
specific pitch. This material is extracted from the accompanying instrument—
guitar—itself: chord sequences derived from the instrument’s tuning, here spe-
cially altered. The guitar of course would have been the typical accompanying
instrument of the older songs; and the altered tuning allows the basic, open
string resonance to represent the typical accompanying chords of triad and di-
minished seventh. Wobbly Music, then, sets its text and draws the musical mate-
rial (insofar as pitched) of that setting from the music originally associated with
the text. This at least, through a kind of historical cross-referencing, makes for a
closer coordination of the text and its formalization.
The choice of text material for the individual numbers suggested the arrange-
ment of the order of the numbers, that is, the structure of the whole piece, which
is, in turn, expressed by the music. “Bread and Roses,” because it has again
become familiar, though with different, yet related, political associations, is the
opening number; it links its original sense with the present. It is connected to the
eighth and last number, “It was a wonderful strike.” The latter takes from it its
pitch material and carries forward its feeling of confident affirmation and the ex-
pression of a need for continued, united struggle. This last number also uses, for
the first time in the piece, percussion, played by the singers (as well as chosen by
them), to give a final, sharp edge of sound. As noted, the text of the second song,
“John Golden and the Lawrence Strike,” is used again with new music, whose
pitch material is derived from the original song’s music, in the sixth number.
“The Preacher and the Slave,” the third number, provides pitch material for the
setting of the preamble, the fifth number. These two texts are among the best
known that represent the Wobblies in general—they are the only ones in the
O n Political Te xts and Ne w Mus i c ( 1980) 81

piece which do not relate specifically to the Lawrence strike. The instrumental
interlude, the fourth number (which was written last), is made up of material
drawn from each of the subsequent numbers. Only the seventh number, “If there
was any violence,” stands somewhat apart (though some of its musical material
is used in the instrumental interlude). Its text, which both relates to the events at
Lawrence and transcends them as a statement of principles, is the strongest and
most impassioned in the piece, and, as said, is set without singing pitches. This
overall structure, then, has correspondences and symmetries: the fourth number
relates to the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth; the third to the fifth; the second to
the sixth; and, framing the whole, the first to the eighth. These are intended to
show the interconnection of the piece’s parts and to suggest a cumulative force in
their progression.
Compared to the pieces described earlier, Wobbly Music is the most explicit in
its notation. The score can still be used flexibly, to accommodate available per-
formers and allow choices of interpretation, but the range of flexibility is nar-
rower. This is due partly to the larger number of performers involved, whose
coordination needs more initial guidance, and partly to the clarity and unambig-
uous force of the text. Like the earlier pieces, it has a didactic element for the
performers—through the texts they sing and through the musical conditions
under which they sing11—and, potentially, for the audience. In the previous
pieces, the relation of the music to its audience is the most unpredictable ele-
ment of all. Unless composer and performers can take over complete responsi-
bility for the conditions of individual performances, this unpredictability, under
present social and cultural circumstances, will necessarily continue. In Wobbly
Music there is, by the inclusion of traditional material in the three opening songs,
an initial effort to find, or at least inform, an audience. It could also be said that
the larger number of performers, making up a community of their own, become
an audience too, or rather, they can begin to represent the breaking up of a sharp
division between audience and performers. This is one direction in experimen-
tal music that can support a politically progressive position.
The use in Wobbly Music of older music is not intended as an exercise in nos-
talgia; nor of course is the use of older political texts. In each case, music and
text, it is a matter of using the past to serve the present. It may, for example, be
useful to recall some of the basic sources of the socialist argument—as plainly
stated at the opening of the preamble: “the working class and the employing
class have nothing in common”; or as Giovannitti said at his trial (the conclusion
of the seventh number): “I say you cannot be half free and half slave, and eco-
nomically all the working class in the United States are as much slaves now as the
negroes were forty or fifty years ago; because the man that owns the tools where-

11
In this respect the piece is like Brecht’s Lehrstücke.
82 occasional pieces

with another man works, the man that owns the house where this man lives, the
man that owns the factory where this man wants to go to work—that man owns
and controls the bread that that man eats and therefore controls his mind, his
body, his heart and his soul.” As for the older music, it is also important to recall
the tradition of popular political music of which it is a part, a tradition notably
neglected by the mass media (and by most formal musical education). That it
should be a popular music also affects the new music drawn out of it. It stands as
a model for nonsubjective writing, avoidance of eccentricity, economy, and di-
rectness of expression, accessibility to a wide range of participants, humor (in
the use of rhythm and timing) and militancy (again, in rhythmic procedures,
and in the sound qualities of the accompanying instruments). A number of these
features are close to aspects of experimental music, particularly where it is con-
cerned with the subordination of individualistic self-expression, accessibility to
a range of performers, and economy of technical means. What the new music
contributes is principally additional means for achieving these ends; a spirit of
practical freedom from conventional compositional models (not necessarily to
eliminate them, but simply to find, without formal prejudice, what works best
with these texts); and a distinctive, new sound. The newness of the music should
be a mark of vitality, signaling what is now to the point in the older texts.

This article was written at the request of Steven P. Scher for a collection of writings, edited by him,
Literatur und Musik. Ein Handbuch zur Theorie und Praxis eines komparatistischen Grenzgebiets,
Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1984. It had first appeared in Sonus. A Journal of Investigations
into Global Musical Possibilities I/1, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fall 1980.
13

On the Death of Cornelius Cardew (1981)

This last December, Cornelius Cardew was killed by a hit-and-run driver in


London. He was forty-five years old. It is hard to say briefly what he meant to a
remarkably large number of us. He was the most important composer in England,
because of the quality of his music, because of his organizing, because of his
thinking, speaking, and writing. In the mid-fifties he linked the United States
and European avant-garde. He worked with Stockhausen and he established in
England the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Terry
Riley, and myself. He was then himself a focal figure, attracting around him a va-
riety of musicians, including nonprofessionals, artists, and jazz performers, and
he turned principally to collaborative music-making, in the improvisational
group AMM and the unique Scratch Orchestra, which he founded with Howard
Skempton and Michael Parsons in 1969. By the early seventies, the social aspect
of his musical activity, so far individualist and anarchist, took on more precise,
political definition. He joined and worked, both politically and musically, for an
English Marxist-Leninist party. And he repudiated as politically regressive
much of the avant-garde of which he had been a part. Using traditional and po-
litical songs as material he wrote music, mostly for piano, in a romantic-realistic
style, intending it for a wider audience that might be affected by its political
content. At the same time, he worked with a band that performed traditional
and new political songs at rallies and demonstrations. Of the songs he himself
wrote,  one—Bethanien Song, written in Berlin during a campaign for better
health Â�facilities in a working-class neighborhood—has become part of the local
folk music.
He was, personally and musically, someone you knew you had to come to
terms with. He made no compromises. His directions changed, but on a progres-
sive path, toward people’s lives and struggles. He took remarkable risks with his
life and work. And the music came along, changing to be useful in the process.
This process, together with his fine and lively musical intelligence and feeling,
continues to be the source of his music’s strength. The changing was sometimes

83
84 occasional pieces

painful; it was also exhilarating. He thought both hard and with feeling so that he
could be passionately clear, his thought and work joined; and he acted calmly
and with good hope.

Written in 1981 for the program booklet of Cornelius Cardew memorial concerts in New York
and London.
14

On Notation (1984)

I’ve used, roughly speaking, three ways of notating music: (1) familiar (to those
who “read” music) on staves; (2) invented but including familiar (sometimes
with unfamiliar referents: a whole note, not for a count of four but as “zero” or a
duration whose length, whatever it may be, is determined by the player’s choice
(or feel, or impulse) and (or) by other sounds not predictable to the player, this
requiring the additional notation of an angled line to or (and) from the whole
note, or a vertical line down from the whole note: a notation for at once fluid and
precise coordination); and (3) words, instructions, indications in prose.
For some time now I’ve mostly used (1), but with many omissions: the staves
invite pitch indications, but clefs may be omitted, more commonly, just dynam-
ics, articulations, tempi, and modes of playing are omitted. Once (Edges) the
notations [(2) and (3)] indicated primarily what the players were to omit.
Notation is before the fact; incentives and suggestions for action is, by defini-
tion, incomplete, full of omissions, but, I think, should be as practical as possi-
ble. I have wanted to be practical about making it possible for musical action,
performance, to be direct, each time as though for the first time; and direct too
in the sense of moving outward, so that the playing is not so much an expression
of the player (or composer) as a way of connecting, making a community (the
music itself sometimes involving internally those fluid and precise, and transpar-
ent, lines or projections of connection).

This text was written at the request of Sylvia Smith for the catalogue of an exhibition Scribing
Sound. An Exhibition of Music Notation (1952–84) on the occasion of the 1984 New Music
America Festival in Hartford, Connecticut.

85
15

Open to Whom and to What (1987)

In General
What follows is drawn from material collected for a talk on “open form” in (con-
temporary) music, material that I find difficult to deal with, not wanting if at all
possible simply to repeat others and myself on a subject that concerned many of
us some twenty-five and more years ago (for instance, Earle Brown, Henri
Pousseur, Pierre Boulez, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Konrad Boehmer, Umberto Eco,
and of course, though in fact more obliquely, John Cage). Current revival of in-
terest in questions raised then is, to be sure, itself a matter of interest.1
Theoretical and general observations about open form related it (roughly)
(1) to early twentieth-century scientific thinking, especially in physics (notions
of uncertainty, indeterminacy, probability, and field theories) and (2) to the—
more elusive to describe—transrationial world of, say, Zen Buddhism, poetry,
and anarchic individualism, (1) associated with more sophisticated and flexible
modes of control—both epistemological and manipulative—and (2) with liber-
ation, individual and possibly social. All this appeared in the context of the
emerging Cold War and for a short time had a heroic feeling about it, as of a force
running, in some cases under considerable economic and cultural risk, against
the grain of quiescent and complacent establishments, although almost com-
pletely without political awareness.
What exactly constitutes openness in open form is not easy to say. The notion,
or word, “open” is highly, and variably, associative. “Open ears, open minds”

1
Some of the writings referred to: Earle Brown, “Form in New Music,” Darmstädter Beiträge zur
Neuen Musik X (1965) (= Source 1/1, 1967); Pierre Boulez, “Alea,” Perspectives of New Music 111/1
(1964; first in Darmstädter Beiträge 11, 1957); Konrad Boehmer, Zur Theorie der offenen Form in der
Neuen Musik (Darmstadt: Editio Tonus 1967); Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta (Milan: Bompiani,1962);
see also The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979); Heinz-Klaus
Metzger, “John Cage o della liberazione,” Incontri Musicali 3 (1959); Henri Pousseur, “La nuova sen-
sibilità musicale,” Incontri Musicali 2 (1958). More recently, Thomas DeLio has interestingly ex-
tended the discussion of open form in his book Circumscribing the Open Universe (Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1984).
87
88 occasional pieces

( John Cage, circa 1967). Open can suggest possibilities, multiplicity, heteroge-
neity, change. It can imply open to participation, as in democratic proceedings
or collective debate (providing, as Eco says in connection with Brecht, “an in-
strument of revolutionary pedagogics”). The word can also be abused, as in Karl
Popper’s reductive The Open Society and its Enemies (first edition 1944, fifth edi-
tion 1966), an easy ideological cliché, as in the old “open door” policy that im-
posed “free” trade and the exploitation of foreign markets. “In the open” implies
no lies, nothing hidden, transparency. “Open air” is out of doors, in German—
im Freien, in the free spaces where anyone can see it, might take part, suggesting
accessibility, and what is public, öffentlich in German (see the brief, clear histori-
cal account by Jürgen Habermas, “Öffentlichkeit” in the Fischer Lexicon Staat
und Politik, 1964; he remarks that publicity has come to imply, as often as not,
lying). Consider “open secret,” a relation of surface to depth, of public to private,
perhaps (though I wouldn’t stress it) secular to sacred.
More specifically, musically, practically, can one ask: if the openness is in the
scoring (form)—by way of composing procedures (for example random means,
computerized programming) or elements variable and indeterminate with
regard to performance—can you hear it? At this point I believe I can only speak
for myself, as listener, at any given, particular occasion; and perhaps ask you to
do the same. At any rate, open comes down to how it sounds, hence also to how
it’s played, more or less regardless of how it’s scored. A Beethoven score, I take it,
is “closed,” but I can imagine it, in some degree, played in an open way, or at least
I have found myself sometimes hearing moments of such a score, especially
slower ones, fermatas, and especially sustained final chords, as open, wishing
there were a piece made up entirely of such moments. And now of course there
are such pieces, though not all that many. I don’t mean, though, to imply that
only slow moving, rhythmically suspended, more or less isolated sounds suggest
openness to me. John Cage somewhere suggested that playing all nine Beethoven
symphonies simultaneously would open up the sound. A last question, since
we’re on Beethoven (or any music that is much played): was this music once
open and did it only later become closed? Some scores, in the density of their
scoring, the extreme detail of prescriptive notation, seem (and, I take it, intend
to be) self-enclosed (for instance Elliott Carter’s work), and sound it. And yet
others, just as dense and detailed, by a kind of refusal of integration or homoge-
nizing, or by their conspicuous excess, sound open (for instance, Ives or Xenakis).
A catalogue of features that sound open (to you and me), though, has only a
limited usefulness (to you and me), and it could foreclose the possibilities of
openness. So, what do we mean when we say it sounds open? A feeling of renew-
able spontaneity? Involving immediacy, directness, a sense of being unmediated
and unrepeatable, mysteriousness, opaqueness. Inevitably passing through time, a
process is also involved which, if characterized by spontaneity, will have surprises
O pen to W hom and to W hat ( 1987) 89

in it, discontinuities. These characteristics—surprise, discontinuity, immediacy—


emerge in turn out of something other than themselves, a background that
makes it possible for them to be felt as surprising, and discontinuous. This back-
ground can only be constituted by ourselves, our histories that made us, our
struggles with those histories, and by these as they are at work at any given time
(hearing, performing, scoring, each already active at variously different times)
(and place, places).
To go a bit further, music (art) imitates (represents) not nature, even in its
mode of operation, but (inevitably, since we do not exist apart from nature nor
nature apart from us) human life in both its material (biological and natural)
aspect and its history, its movement at once personal, social, and political,
through time.
In fact, form—whatever identifies art work as such (in music a length of per-
forming time, for instance, or a particular self-referring world of sound)—is in-
evitably open, because inevitably contingent, fragile, and subject, as we are, to
time and the surrounding world. In turn, the musical work can (for better or
worse) give that time and world definition, identity and meaning it would not
otherwise have had. Open form in music designates a musical work’s dialectical
form of existence. Some musicians engage themselves more directly with such a
dialectic, others ignore or try to resist it, which is also a form of engagement but
not so useful because either unaware or deliberately retrogressive.
Form suggests the question of content. What or where is the content in open
form work? It’s often said that form is content, or the medium’s the message. But
that’s insufficient. Even in the case where one says that sounds (in a musical
work, and by sounds I mean sounds-and-silences) are just sounds, with a life of
their own, the sum, so to speak, of form and content, I agree with Cornelius
Cardew when he points out that only we who hear, score, and produce them can
attribute to and in this sense cause them to have such a life. Sounds are autono-
mous because we think them so, and that gives them content; their autonomy is
what they signify. Content, then, guarantees the openness of form, its dialectical
character. (The particular value of a music in which sounds are treated as though
purely autonomous may be considerable, an inducement to discipline, for exam-
ple, and clarification of purpose.)
Content is also material, both the physical presences of sounds and various
other indications attending a given work, indications whose relation to form
may be complicated and obscure. Varèse’s Ionization, for instance, animates
sounds in a world of their own, seemingly pure and independent as his scientis-
tic title, yet the sirens among them also evoke a quite different life of urban alarm.
In Cage, references to nature (The Seasons, Winter Music,) or astronomy (Atlas
Eclipticalis, Etudes Australes) and the repeated use of Thoreau’s writings (both as
sound and as semantic material) affect—maybe even distract—how we listen to
90 occasional pieces

and think about the free floating sounds of the music. Content is what we have
to think out, and what can be subject to critical reflection (alongside questions
of technique): Peter Maxwell Davies’ medievalisms or Stockhausen’s panmysti-
cism, for example (regressive), or Xenakis’ Greek mythology (revisionist and
playful) or Nono’s politics (committed and progressive). Content denies formal
neutrality. Open doesn’t mean open to any (or no) meaning and use.

Some notes on three pieces


Luigi Nono’s string quartet Fragmente—Stille, An Diotima (1979/1980) is
known to me only through a recording and a few pages of its score.2 I have heard
of another performance nearly ten minutes shorter than the recording’s thirty-Â�
eight. The work’s length is in some considerable degree open, though it would
take several performances to realize it. Its openness is also marked by (1) contin-
uously fragmentary texture (the whole work is one “movement”), including ex-
tensive use of silence and almost continuously variable notation of durations
(scored by an elaborate system of fermatas, often described by variable spaces of
time, for example 9″–13″, 3″–6″—hence the unpredictability of the piece’s total
duration); (2) by the character of its continuity—suggesting, rather than struc-
ture, a process, which once under way feels as though it moves continuously
forward in time with a direction, or even a goal, outside or beyond itself (a cor-
ollary of this is that the music also feels as though it could stop at any time), and
(3) by a kind of obscurity. The latter arises initially from the situation of perfor-
mance in which the players are given texts in their scores, fragments from the
poetry of Hölderlin—to have in mind while playing (but they are in no way
specifically prescriptive), while the content, in fact the existence, of these texts is
kept from the audience, though what they hear will be somehow affected by the
texts. The logic of the music’s pitch material too is allusively obscure, not drawn
from a twelve-note series as often before in Nono, but from concrete, historical
sources—a scala enigmatica of seven notes, one changing on the scale’s descent
(used by Verdi in the first of his Quattro Pezzi Sacri, 1886–1897), and part of the
tune of a chanson, “Malheur me bat,” attributed to Ockeghem (late fifteenth cen-
tury), though, apart from some surprising pitch recurrences and octave transpo-
sitions, the sound is generally “atonal” (second, seventh, and tritone intervals
dominate). One might also mention that clearly pitched sound is interrupted or

2
The recording is by the LaSalle Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated. I am indebted for
iÂ� nformation about it to Heinz-Klaus Metzger’s characteristically fine essay, “Wendepunkt Quartett?,”
in Musik-Konzepte 20, Luigi Nono (Munich: edition text + kritik, 1981).
O pen to W hom and to W hat ( 1987) 91

strongly modified by the nearly continuous use of varied means of sound pro-
duction (for example col legno, battuto, playing on the far side of the bridge—
where the pitches are unspecifiable).
The piece is eminently dialectical, and, in this sense, open. By dialectical I
mean, here, the interconnecting of differing features of the music that brings
about the music’s life, and so its way of participating in representing, and being
part of a commentary on individual and political history. Some of these inter-
connections have just been suggested. Consider also: the indefiniteness of the
durational notations and yet the precise (and, where, as often, unison playing of
the smallest fragments is required, totally exposed) prescription of performing
coordination between the players. Also: the use of given, historically existing
material (Verdi, Ockeghem, Hölderlin) and at the same time the apparently sub-
jective and obscure reasons for choosing just this material. (In the case of
Hölderlin, one can see that he is chosen at once for an intensely personal love
poetry and, I take it, as the representative of a revolutionary situation and its ef-
fects in the Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, a view of the poet that
emerged in the late 1960s and particularly in Peter Weiss’s 1971 play Hölderlin).
Heinz-Klaus Metzger (see footnote 2) points out the surprising affinity of
this piece’s indeterminate elements and use of silence to the music and thought
of Cage. Here, too, there is paradox, or a kind of dialectic. For Cage, indetermi-
nacy is a way to depersonalize musical production, to eliminate subjectivity and
self, and silence is a way of making space in which sounds can be themselves, free
of subjective intent. For Nono, these same means are associated with intense
subjective expression; yet they are also means of, so to speak, purifying subjec-
tivity. The austerity and esotericism of the music, its obscurity, are both the mark
of its subjectivity and its protection from even the remotest suggestion of trivial-
izing sentimentality. They may suggest a rejoining of private self to collectivity
(but it is only, I think, a fleeting suggestion). (The combining of subjectivity
with extended, also apparently abstract, patterning of sonority—within an
almost exclusively very soft dynamic range—reminds one, too, of Morton
Feldman’s work.)
One of Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations is “Teach Yourself to Fly”
Â�(1970–73).3 This is the score, dedicated to Amelia Earhart:

Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the center. Illuminate the
space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breath-
ing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become
audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords

3
Oliveros herself provides illuminating commentary on this piece in Software for People
(Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1984), 138ff.
92 occasional pieces

to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of


the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible,
naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own
breath cycle.
Variation: Translate voice to an instrument.
Copyright 1974 by Smith Publications, Baltimore, reprinted by
permission.

Such a work is open, first, simply because of its accessibility to performance, to


anyone willing to learn the yogalike discipline required, and then because, one
could say, the performers become the work. Open here is immediate in pres-
ence. The music is open to, appears in the moment of its being caused to appear,
mediated by nothing other than the natural action and reaction of the human
body (or body-and-mind). The sound, its shape and flow, and the people through
whom it comes about (including the one who wrote down—on the basis of long
previous performance practice4—how it could be caused to happen) are to-
gether part of a nearly seamless web (a spider’s web if you can think of it as seam-
less). A web that anyone, paying attention, can become part of.
The situation is clearly practical, not utopian except insofar as the possibility
of an audience is marginalized. Or rather, and better: this music requires us to
consider transforming the usual notion of audience, from consumers to partici-
pants. It’s worth noting too that the score (text) indicates, in addition to the
“pure” case of the body, breath, and sound relationship, a possible extension and
transformation of the use of instruments (more usually regarded, after the voice
and body, as secondary and mediating).
In addition to the living material of performers, the piece has a further “con-
tent,” or, one might say, politics. The instruction to sit in a circle facing the center,
for example, does not mean self-enclosed abnegation of the world but is part of
the disciplining and practical character of the music-making. Centered in partic-
ipation (one needs at least to imagine oneself a participant), the music is also a
means of instruction (“Teach Yourself . . .”) with personal and social uses: obser-
vation, the activating of self toward something other, the attunement to, and at-
tuning of, others, on the basis of one’s shared being. Nor should we forget that
the piece emerged from the work of a women’s ensemble and is dedicated to a
heroic woman flyer.

4
An important difference from the origin of Stockhausen’s “intuitive music” texts, Aus den Sieben
Tagen (1968), which were written after a solitary meditative exercise on the part of the composer.
Though the Oliveros pieces would not have come about without her, they function, so to speak,
Â�laterally, radiating outward, not down from an “authorial presence.”
Bowery Preludes (for the Bowery Ensemble’s flute, trombone, percussion, and piano, 1985/1986)
Bowery Preludes #3
O pen to W hom and to W hat ( 1987) 95

My Bowery Preludes (for the Bowery Ensemble’s flute, trombone, percussion,


and piano) (1985/86) are a mix of materials and procedures. Each of the five
preludes is somewhat differently made: in #1, four-part block writing alternating
with two-part counterpoint; in #2, independent pairs of instruments, coordinat-
ing by signals to make a rhythm (there is no barring), dynamics specifically
(only here in all the preludes) and pitches generally (by register or color) speci-
fied; in #3, freely heterophonic decoration of (and derived from) a long sus-
tained or widely spaced melody line (rhythm fluid, unbarred); in #4, a two-part
invention for piccolo and trombone (as in #1 and #5 countable rhythms, barred);
in #5, hocketed melody, then harmonic figuration, then a mix of both, running
simultaneously with a mostly hocketed percussive (unspecified in pitch) rhyth-
mic line. All but #2 draw melodic and rhythmic material from songs: the black
American spirituals “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Oh Freedom,” and “Set Down,
Servant,” a black prison song, “Ain’t No Cane in Dis Brazis,” and a contemporary
British women’s “Picket Line Song.” There are various open procedural features,
sometimes drawing on earlier work—Changing the System (1972), for instance,
in #2 and Exercises (1973–74) in #3. Generally, openness is in the variety among
the preludes, and in their juxtapositions. Each has a distinct identity, though also
internally variable, indeterminate, and changing with each performance, yet
none are, so to speak, self-sufficient. The group is mutually interdependent. I had
an image of patchwork, partly because of the discontinuity of so much of our
experience, and also of quilting, which suggests the hope of renewed connection
(note that the latter is regarded traditionally as women’s communal work: now
what is implied by such work should be undertaken by all of us).
The song materials may be, when identified, the most clearly marked ele-
ments of content in the music (black struggles for freedom—now South Africa;
labor demonstrations—the links of capitalism and oppression), though the ab-
sence of song material in #2 raises the question of how content is weighed.
Musically—I chose them too of course because they are musically congenial—
the song materials, modal in pitch and sharply articulated in rhythm, are a source
of extroversion, a sound that emerges not only out of the players’ interactions
with one another, but that can also be projected outwardly.
“Preludes”: working out within a limited compass more or less one idea;
making a beginning; practicing, warming up; opening up: What for? Musically,
almost anything—so long as the music’s content (wherever it may be) also
points us in some way toward our present history and the hope of getting through
it, to common liberation and peace.

This was a talk given in 1986 in Luxemburg at “Art étonne,” a Conference-Festival on Open Structure
in Twentieth Century Music, at the request of conference director Wesley Fuller. It was published
in Interface, Volume 16, Number 3, 1987.
16

Morton Feldman Memorial Text (1987)

We met in 1950, through John Cage, when I was sixteen and he in his early twen-
ties. We were all doing work that was clearly different, newly different—from
one another, but joined by our delight in each other’s work (and by John Cage’s
organizing the concerts of it and a few musicians, David Tudor centrally, playing it),
and by its difference from any other we knew. I still find mysterious his way of
putting the music together, or rather of erasing any traces of a sense of its having
been put together: it’s just there. How does he do it? He’s the only composer
I know whose work seems made in a way that cannot be accounted for, explained,
by any other means than the impossible one of becoming that composer oneself.
He talked wonderfully, sharply, outrageously, but that wasn’t quite his music.
One thinks of the disparity of his large, strong presence and the delicate, hyper-
soft music, but in fact he too was, among other things, full of tenderness and the
music is, among other things, as tough as nails.

Written in 1987 at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel, first published in
German in Musik Texte 22, December 1987.

97
17

On Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952


(1988, 1995)

Sometime in the year of its composition, I heard Morton Feldman play his Piano
Piece 1952. After he finished, Luciano Berio, sitting next to me, said something
about the piece’s “dialectic.” I don’t recall just what, but I was struck by the effort,
which at the time seemed to me characteristically European, to say something,
to conceptualize this passage of sounds, a soft succession, regularly paced, of
single notes, moving almost without exception back and forth from right hand
to left, somewhere in treble to somewhere in bass and back again.
What is there to say? The music appears to be unanalyzable. I don’t see any
system, at least none which could account for the presence of one sound in
relation to another in continuity. Each sound is simply itself, and even in the con-
tinuous, even rhythm of alternation—perhaps even because of this rhythm—
erases, as Feldman might have said, the memory of what precedes, or, one could
say, stills the impulse to connect and the habit of conceptualizing. You are, in the
end, completely exposed to your own listening.
If we say anything, its point is not to discover what he had in mind when he
wrote (strictly speaking, I’d say he had nothing in mind), but we could try to
look for things that it might have interested him to have us notice. For instance,
uses of register; what he called “weight”; equilibrium; resonance or reverberation
(he often asked for a minimum or near invisible attack when making a sound,
allowing the sound to appear as a kind of after-resonance). I see no interest as
such in pitch class or interval pattern organization.
Each sound (a single piano tone) exists for itself, and the piece as a whole is
itself too; it has a coherent presence. How does that happen? Complete concen-
tration, I would guess, at the time of writing (he often wrote in ink, no correc-
tions), without the distraction of any system of composition, but under exactly
limited conditions: only single notes, all of equal duration (a dotted quarter—to
make the player pay a little bit more attention), to be played very quietly through-
out (but slight, unpredictable differences would result in performance if playing

99
100 occasional pieces

very softly is strictly attempted—differences in dynamics and so in the durations


actually heard).
One can take some stock of what’s written. There are 171 notes altogether,
beginning and ending in the treble, alternating, as said, between treble and bass,
moving always down and back up, except twice: once starting at the seventieth
note, four notes move continuously up (left hand crosses over right), and then at
note 161, four notes move down (right hand crosses over left). In the first case,
the fourth note is G'â•›", then followed by C♯'. In the second case, the first of the
four notes is G', which is preceded by great C♯. A symmetrical reciprocity (chias-
mus), except for the register changes of G and C♯. But I doubt this is part of any
(pre-) compositional design. For one thing, G and C♯ are adjacent four other times,
with different octave placings for each pair (notes 15–16: from C♯ to small G;
59–60: from C♯" to contra G; 130–131: from great G to C♯'; 170–171, the piece’s
last two notes: from small G to C♯"'). The register choices, constantly shifting,
seem made just for the sake of sonority, and not by any calculated design. Some
sort of half-memory, I would think, is involved and a process of discovery in the
actual process of writing, undistracted by any compositional ideas.
The adjacent pitch pairs, C♯ and G, variously voiced and appearing at irregular
points (and there are others: E♭ and E: ten times; G♯ and B♭: four times; A and B♭:
five times, for instance) at once allow and erase a difference. An equilibrium is
maintained such that one may sense the ghost of a pattern being continuously a
little bit rearranged. But in all this there is no anxiety, no need to “hear,” extrapo-
late, or understand this process. Just listen to the sounds as they come and go.
The music is evidently made by ear, and that’s the way to take it in. (It is also
made, though I understand this less well, analogously, by eye, like a painter,
�applying sound to a surface. This particular piece, with just its succession of
single sounds and finely calibrated range of “weight,” could be thought of as
a drawing in black and white.)
I note just one other trace or illusion of a patterning (and doubtless a number
of others could be extrapolated). Triads. Triad notes alternating with nontriad
ones, between treble and bass (upper and lower staves of the score): the third,
fifth, and seventh notes of the piece make up a first inversion F♯ (major) triad;
the eighteenth, twentieth, and twenty-second notes make up an A ♭ triad (and,
dovetailing, the twenty-second, twenty-forth, and twenty-sixth notes point to
a B triad without its fifth). There are, similarly, subsequent triads of E (minor),
D, E (without fifth), A ♭ (with repeated third), A ♭, A6 dovetailed with C6, E6, D in
second inversion, G6, F♯6 (the latter two, adjacent, at the piece’s end). (These
triads, by the way, are rarely spelled normally, as, of course, they are not heard in
any functional sense.) Again a suggestion of symmetry: F♯6 at almost the begin-
ning of the piece and F♯ at the end, but different positions and quite different
voicings. And three major (B on notes 42–44, B♭ on 50–52, G on 67–69, and one
Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952. Copyright © 1962, C. F. Peters, New York.
O n Mor ton Feldman’s Pian o Pi ece 1952 ( 1988, 1995) 103

augmented (E on 126–128) triad, as well as nine diminished seventh chords (for


example on C at 19–21, on B at 22–24) are outlined by successive notes.
Another way to describe what is going on might be to say that what I hap-
pened to have found to “analyze”—the suggestions of patterns—seem at first
memory markers, that is, they would resist Feldman’s desire for pure, unencum-
bered sonority. But in fact this is a resistance so partial and casual as to be contin-
ually overcome. The sound is simply present. It doesn’t look back. That’s what
makes this music utopian.

Rewriting (1995) of what was first written in 1988 at the request of Thomas DeLio, but not at that
time used.
18

On Morton Feldman’s Music (1990)

The puzzle is, how does he do it—write the music, put it together. Sometime in,
I think, 1966, when I had become interested in working with electric guitar,
I asked Morty would he consider writing for it. I offered to come over with the
guitar to show him what I thought it could do and how it sounded. He agreed,
and when I came we immediately set to work, he at the piano, playing a chord:
“can you do that?” I could. “How about this?” With some contortions (the guitar
was laid flat so I could better see what I was doing—I’m not a guitar player—and
this way I could finger and pluck with either hand), yes. “This?” Not quite. “Now”
(with changed voicing, or a new chord)? Yes. And so on, until he had made the
piece. Tempo was slow and dynamics soft, the structure dictated by the amount
of time we were able to concentrate on the work. The sound, the chords or single
notes, were reverberations set off by his (characteristic) piano playing, feeling
for a resonance, then confidently transferred to the guitar within that instru-
ment’s capacities (sometimes adding one of its particular features, the ability to
make small slides with a vibrato bar).
When we were finished he gave me the music he’d written. I played the
piece—it was called The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar—three
times in public, at Harvard University, at the studio of station WKFA in San
Francisco, and at the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts in New York
City. I kept the music—there was only the one copy—inside my guitar case.
A few months later guitar and case were stolen out of our car.
The content of a Feldman piece is the result of his compositional work, which
is to say sounds he has, one way or another, listened for and notated carefully
(a process, one senses, he has much enjoyed). Sometimes there is an additional
content, more explicit and one could say more obviously personal, and also some-
what external to the music: a tune he had written when a teenager, with Hebraic
reference, in Rothko Chapel, for example, the very few occasions on which he
set texts (Céline, Rilke, e. e. cummings, O’Hara, a line from one of the Psalms,
Beckett), the linking through titles to people or events, which was perhaps more
simply a registering of affection.

105
106 occasional pieces

Sometime in the early seventies, I happened to see a documentary antiwar


film about Vietnam. The music accompanying it was very striking, of very high
quality and sounding, I thought, particularly apt for the subject of the film that
gave at once a sense of the war and the absolute need to resist it. At the end of the
film, the credits showed that the music was Morton Feldman’s The King of
Denmark. It had been recorded for the film quite loudly throughout, which made
its sound difficult to associate with Feldman. Because the piece was for percus-
sion (of no specified pitch), its being much louder than Feldman had specified
altered its sound more drastically than might have been the case with conven-
tional instruments. The title of the piece referred to that king of Denmark who,
during the Second World War when the occupying Germans commanded all
Jews to wear the Star of David, appeared in public wearing one too. The King of
Denmark was a political piece. Its political character shone through in the
Vietnam film, for all the changes its sound had been subject to.

What has been the effect of his work on mine? It is, like nothing else, there.
Like a tree. You could count on it. Like John Cage’s work, David Tudor’s, Alvin
Lucier’s (and a few others), it keeps alive, in part also by changing somewhat,
that feeling of clearly doing new work, we used to call it “experimental,” which
appeared in the early fifties. It has an identity so intense that you don’t need to
worry about identity at all, which is liberating. For a long time, to consider a
practical point, I thought of Feldman’s choice of intervals and chords as implying
that any combination of pitches was “all right,” so long as their placing, the
rhythm of their continuity (a rhythm that actually erased an ordinary feeling of
continuity), and their sonority worked, which because of his ear and feeling they
always seem to. In the meantime, I have noticed that in fact his chords draw on a
fairly restricted distribution of intervals, favoring the minor ones, seconds and
sevenths—clearly at a distance from the diatonic directions (including in some
measure my own) of the seventies. In retrospect, Feldman’s music’s not chang-
ing, simply extending over the years, probably made it easier for me to attempt
what seemed to me sharp changes in my own work, beginning in the seventies.
I find it hard to write about his work simply, though what there is really to say
I think is in fact so simple it takes your breath away.

These two texts were made for program booklets, the first in 1990 at the request of Ernstalbrecht
Stiebler for the Forum Neue Musik Hessischer Rumdfunk; the second for an occasion I have
been unable to trace.
19

What Is Our Work? (1990)

What I mean is, what are we—composers, producers of music—doing, and,


perhaps, what should we be doing. I also mean how are we doing it.
Who are we? Well, I’ll have to speak mostly for myself, if only because I have
more of the material at hand than for anyone else. But I’ve said “we” and “our”
because the musical enterprise is inevitably social, or, if you will, political, in one
way or another. We all need to survive materially to start with, and our work,
whatever it is, will be affected by that, while our material survival obviously de-
pends on social networks. For example, the extraordinary character of John
Cage’s work in the fifties and early sixties, the alarming and beautiful blend in it
of power and danger—in addition to, almost in spite of, the music’s refusal of
rhetoric—must owe something to his continuously endangered economic life at
the time. Over roughly the same period Elliott Carter, in total economic security,
evolved his characteristically hypercomplex and hyperdeterminate hermetic
music. Somewhere in between, a larger number of us have been employed by
universities and colleges: how has that affected our work?
Apart from this aspect of the material environment in which we work there is
the wider social one of an economy geared to mass consumption, on the one
hand, and therefore to a homogenizing of our cultural experience, and, on the
other hand, an economy that feeds on a privatizing technology: recordings,
Walkman® players, videos, video recorders, all are for individual, private use, be-
cause no doubt more will be sold if everyone is persuaded that they must have
this equipment, or indeed they must have it if they want any access to the main
currents of the culture. In this way, the technology is antisocial and objectifies
cultural products, makes them consumer items, and so suppresses the liveli-
ness they might have in a particular social setting of audience and performer(s).
(Of course technology can be useful and mind-stretching; it’s a human creation,
and it’s extended extraordinarily access both to cultural products and cultural
work. In music, for instance, if you can get hold of, or construct or modify equip-
ment, with some intelligence and with information that is more or less available,
you can make music, and you can do it in ways that may alter notions of what

107
108 occasional pieces

music might be. Technology too may offer means of making connections
�between popular and so-called art music.
I also refer to our work in the plural because, though I know rather less of
other music that’s being made than I would like, I try to think about it, respond
to it in some way in my own work. At times I have worked closely with—and
performed with—others, and that’s affected my work: for instance, David Tudor,
John Cage, Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, Gordon Mumma, the mem-
bers of the English improvising group AMM, John Tilbury, Garrett List. Other
musics have affected me all my life. Some musics I admire and don’t know what
to do about it, but because they exist I have the feeling that they allow me to get
on with what I am doing: for example, the music of Nancarrow, Tudor, Oliveros,
Lucier, Nono, Ashley, Feldman. As for the other musics that have affected my
work I should mention that they include musics of the past, Western classical
music (on much of which I was raised from an early age), going back to the me-
dieval period, musics of other traditions—African Ba-Benzele Pygmy, for in-
stance, and some jazz (for example, Ornette Coleman), and I have drawn for
musical material considerably from folk music, particularly North American and
from the black culture, and politically connected.
All these musics could be called “influences,” although except for the use of
tunes (from political folk music), there is no deliberate, conscious use of them,
no effort to adapt or imitate. In many cases, I think of them after the fact of my
own writing, as though having come away from a conversation with them (or
one or more parts of them) I carry on the talk on my own, and perhaps they are
listening. They can also provide a kind of corroboration and encouragement.
While working on the first set of Exercises, which are mostly single or double
pitch lines to be played by a variable number of unspecified instruments in a
freely heterophonic way, for example, I happened to hear part of a performance
of the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria, which sounded to me at once
various, rich, and clear; and then I found out that it was all based on a single no-
tated pitch line. After making the piece Stones (a prose instruction for an improv-
isation using stones as the basic sound source), I brought a copy of it to Cornelius
Cardew, who, when he had looked at it, reached over and handed me his score-
in-progress of The Great Learning, paragraph 1, in which members of a chorus
must make sounds with stones, according to a graphic notation based on Chinese
characters—Cornelius had thought to use stones because, beautifully cut and
tuned, they are often used in Chinese classical music. My piece had originally
come about after a long afternoon on a stone-covered beach, discovering and
trying out the range of sounds that a variety of stones is capable of producing. In
the case of each of these pieces, you could say an area of community of interest
was discovered and identified. With the Cantigas initially a formal procedure—
heterophony and flexible instrumental realization—was shared, but then too
W hat Is Our Work? ( 1990) 109

some of the conditions underlying this way of making the music: collaborative
performance (nonhierarchical), the mix of popular and so-called high cultural
elements (the Cantigas draw widely from folk tunes, the Exercises are full of dia-
tonic bits, both require a more than simply popular formality of performance
presentation). In the case of Stones, common interests in the exploration of
new (or so I thought) sound sources intersected, coming in the one case from a
piece’s content—The Great Learning sets texts of Confucius—and in the other,
from experiment with natural objects.
I think of the contemporary musical work I have referred to and my own
work as experimental. What does that mean? Or, what can we suggest it use-
fully to mean?
It’s, first of all, partly a question of circumstances, as with the related notion of
“new music.” That is, it’s a sliding notion. The earliest new music I know about
appeared at the end of the fifth century b.c. in Athens (people complained at the
time that it undermined the traditional modes or “harmonies,” that it misused,
by extending them, instrumental techniques, that it was directionless—zigzag-
ging about like ants—and rhythmically unstable, that it obscured the words of
texts that it set, that it corrupted the young). In the early fourteenth century,
a “new art,” ars nova, of music (or, more precisely, of musical notation) was iden-
tified. And so forth down the centuries. And evidently by the beginning of the
twentieth century the beginnings of “our” new music emerged, most character-
istically it seemed around the figure of Schoenberg. By the mid-fifties, one of
Schoenberg’s greatest apologists, Theodor W. Adorno, wrote about the “ageing
of new (modern) music,” a powerful essay in which he claimed that this ageing
was due to the fact that “the young no longer dared to be young.” By the late six-
ties (shortly before his death) he wrote, more generally, and perhaps more sug-
gestively, that “the new [in art] is the longing for the new, not the new itself.”
Adorno follows up this observation by remarking that modern art (or twentieth-
century music), identifying itself as new, assumes a notion of progress, assumes
that the new constitutes an improvement on the old. Yet, he also observes, the
world around us doesn’t seem to be improving, is in fact in a state of extraor-
dinary crisis—the gap between rich and poor, violence, the use of torture, the
abuse of the environment are reaching unprecedented proportions (I update his
examples somewhat). If then, Adorno argues, art would be linked with progress,
it must represent a utopian impulse, an expression or image of, or desire for,
a better world. But such a representation, insofar as “social reality increasingly
impedes Utopia,” will implicate art in the fostering of delusion and false comfort,
will make it a lie.
There are of course more familiar notions of the new. Bach, you remember,
had to provide a new cantata every Sunday—which recalls that the idea of per-
forming old music, of musical reruns, is relatively recent (and, as it happened,
110 occasional pieces

Bach was one of its first beneficiaries). Nowadays, when you use the term “new
music” it can mean what is currently on the pop charts, or refer to groups just
emerging on the scene, whatever their musical style or sound happens to be. Here,
the new is associated with novelty, with what is fashionable, up-to-date, not yet
passé, an association easily connected to marketing strategies looking to extend
and expand consumption.
There is a beautiful moment early in Homer’s Odyssey (we are back in the
early eight century b.c.) in which Odysseus’ wife Penelope asks the singer, who
is entertaining unwelcome guests in her house, not to sing the heartbreaking
song of her husband’s absence. Her son Telemachus however checks her, saying,
“Why, my mother, do you begrudge this excellent singer/his pleasing himself as
the thought drives him? It is not the singers/who are to blame, it must be Zeus
[the all-powerful of the gods] is to blame, who gives out/to men who eat bread,
to each and all, the way he wills it./There is nothing wrong in his singing the sad
return of the Danaans [the Greeks, including Odysseus]./People, surely, always
give more applause to that song/which is the latest to circulate among the listen-
ers.” And he continues, “So let your heart and let your spirit be hardened to
listen/Odysseus is not the only one who lost his homecoming/day at Troy.
There were many others who perished, besides him.” The passage is beautiful in
part because of its intricacies: we (the audience) know in fact that Odysseus has
not lost his homecoming but is on his way, and the song from which this passage
is taken, the Odyssey, is the song of that homecoming, which will complete, or
continue, the new, but in fact not yet completed song that is so painful to
Penelope and that Telemachus defends on the grounds of its newness. He also
defends the new song on the grounds of the singer’s inspiration, or need to sing
what he sings; on the grounds that the song represents reality (what Zeus
has dispensed), which affects a far larger group than just Odysseus—though
Telemachus misapprehends some of that reality; and on the grounds that the
present company (however unwelcome and threatening they happen to be) has
a claim on the song’s newness, which outweighs consideration of the private
grief it causes Penelope.
We might mention in passing that the performance of orally transmitted and
of improvised musics, which are in many cases traditional musics, is always,
strictly speaking, new. Such performance, one could say, exists only for the
present, albeit in some cases as a kind of foreground on that particular music’s
traditional background.
When all is said and done, we need and want, in some sense that matters,
what is new. What will it be? How will it be determined?
Before continuing with those questions I’d like to suggest a schematic outline
of how one might see the need for what is new. Under one general heading of
subjective or personal: there is (1) an appetite for novelty somehow in each of us;
W hat Is Our Work? ( 1990) 111

and (2) another way of seeing that appetite, as at once the ineluctable fact of our
individual, continual changing, becoming always new, growing and decaying,
and our individual desire, variously activated, to grow, change, renovate, change
our skins. It is a matter of reminding ourselves that we are alive. The second gen-
eral heading I would label objective or social, and locate there (3) the capitalist
market economy, driven by the need for continuing and increasing profits, and
intent, with all the resources of mass communication, on exciting in us unending
desires for its products and services; and (4) the larger condition of the world
and its crises (some of whose manifestations were mentioned earlier), crying
out for change and transformation. All four of these elements may interpene-
trate; all of them are either changeable or capable of instigating change.
Of course, we also have deep needs for stability and gentle continuity. Change
is work, and can be scary as well as exhilarating. And there are always those who
have, or imagine themselves to have, some advantage of power or privilege, and
who will resist change by every means, including in the extreme case their own
destruction. In fact, stability is not a given, not a choice as such. It too has con-
stantly to be recreated through the processes of change. As for the notion that
there is nothing new under the sun, while sobering, it seems to me useless, all
too conducive to inertia and passive resignation.
Now, what about music? It seems to me that everything said so far about the
new and about change points to experimental music. Not of course that music as
such will somehow save us. Obviously there are enormous gaps between social
and musical problems. But they are also linked, a linking that at the very least
urges us to take our musical problems seriously.
What is experimental? In some ways it is, as said before, a variable notion,
differently realized at different times or by different works. The word suggests
something that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It can have an apolo-
getic sound to it—“this is only an experiment”—implying a displacement of the
real thing, or that one is only on the way, more or less groping, toward the real
thing; that the point is to establish something else, more important, on a firm
foundation: to prove it. From this I would eliminate the apologetic tone, but
retain the suggestion of exploration. I would also put on hold the notion that
there is something out there that we can ultimately prove. Experiment implies
working amidst the unknown. It acknowledges the unknown; respects it, but is
not frightened by it. Experiment should be such as to involve genuine risk, that
is, truly acknowledging the unknown in which it operates, and so establish its
seriousness.
One way to consider the experimental character of a piece of music is to
notice its effect on listeners (though I don’t want to stress this point: as a com-
poser I’m more concerned with production than reception, though of course I’m
not indifferent to the latter, but consideration of it doesn’t enter into the actual
112 occasional pieces

processes of making my work except to the extent that it might allow listeners to
be free to do their own listening). Effects such as surprise, shock, astonishment,
irritation, boredom, bemusement. I find this very difficult to talk about, but
I thought it should be mentioned. One of the most encouraging things I have
heard said about the effect of my work was that, although this person didn’t
really like what she was hearing, the performance of the music made her feel that
she wanted to be a musician. David Behrman once said after a concert that he
liked the music because it was honest and it was funny (humorous).
I would like to think of bemusement as a good result of this music, bemuse-
ment at what was heard, mixed in with, variously, pleasure perhaps exhilaration,
and bemusement in the mind, waking it up, also to the social world around it.
Of course music—experimental music—may be allowed a variety of functions.
Henry Brant thinks of music as “medicine for the spirit.”
Let me give you an example of how context can affect the experimental char-
acter of a piece of music. In 1975, I was asked to provide music for a Merce
Cunningham Company “Event,” one of those evening-long performances put
together out of material from various dances. As usual, no specifications were
indicated about the music except for the total length of time within which it
could take place. No information was provided about the character of the dance.
Merce Cunningham’s work is of course experimental and part of that experimen-
talism is to allow the music that accompanies the dance to be itself rather than
an accompaniment. The music that I provided included a new piece that used
material from a song, originally a popular song of the twenties (I think) called
“Redwing,” which was later (in 1940) adapted by Woodie Guthrie to make a
political song called “Union Maid.” We—the musicians (there were four of us
altogether)—decided to include in the performance a singing of “Union Maid.”
Not, I may say, without some previous anxious deliberation. At any rate, the
song, roughly sung—none of us were polished singers, coming at a point in the
dance (unpredictably) where Merce Cunningham was performing one of his
beautiful solos, was shocking (I even remember hearing the odd gasp from the
audience). An ordinary, perky tune was shocking in a context that routinely
absorbed musics like John Cage’s, David Tudor’s, Pauline Oliveros’, Alvin Lucier’s,
and, for that matter, my own. My sense of what might constitute an experimental
music performance has never been the same.
The usual view is that experimental music is distinguished by the presence of
new sound, or (and) new ways of arranging sound, and (or), we might add, new
contexts (which might well be social) for sounds. (As another example of the
latter consider the performance by some of New York’s best players—including
members of the Philharmonic—of Mozart’s woodwind quintet, at a concert
sponsored by the Musicians’ Action Collective, a politically oriented organiza-
tion, as a benefit for the Farm Workers’ Union, a concert including political folk
W hat Is Our Work? ( 1990) 113

music, jazz, and new music, and attended by an audience including the various
followers of these musics most of whom were also supporters of the farm worker’s
cause. Mozart’s piece in this context became a political piece, in, I would claim, a
new, experimental way.)
Something of the feeling of newness is also suggested by John Cage’s remark
that “the trick is suddenly to appear in a place without apparent means of trans-
port.” More explicitly, Cage has also insisted that the essential meaning of ex-
perimental is unpredictability. He urges work of such a kind that its realization
(sometimes as a musical composition, sometimes as a performance, sometimes
both) will surprise the one who made it, in some cases the one(s) who perform
it, and, in a rather different way, those who listen. In the case of those who listen,
the sense of hearing something surprising is different because they don’t really
know the conditions of the experiment—the experimental conditions of a par-
ticular work. If a certain sound has been arrived at by chance (either in the com-
position process or the performing), how can you tell just from hearing it? To be
sure, if the sound is unlike any you have heard before, you will appreciate its ex-
perimental character; but you do so in the context of all your experience of lis-
tening to music; and, if you should hear this sound again it will, in this view,
cease to be experimental. Well, perhaps. The example of the single sound is a bit
over simple. The experimental character of a piece, as it involves unpredictability
(and not necessarily just new sounds), is more likely to be found in the way the
piece makes its own context: the piece as a whole may or may not seem new or
surprising, but it will create a setting within which its surprises take place. You
could think of background (the piece as a whole) and foreground (the things
that affect you as surprise). It may also be that foreground and background—
surprisingly—change into one another.
To return to John Cage just once more, he has a reason for stressing the notion
of unpredictability. It’s to allow you—the listener, but also himself and the
players—to be more alert and attentive in this way: the unpredictability is a result
or symptom of compositional techniques (in his case the use of chance in the proc-
ess of composing and sometimes in the overlaying of independent individual
performer’s parts or of several independently made compositions for a given
performance), techniques intended to free up the music from extra-musical pres-
sures, such as the desire to express a feeling or idea or image or whatever, even
the desire to be beautiful. This is not to say that such expressions might not
appear or be felt by listeners to appear, but the point is that they would appear
without specific intention: they would take you by surprise, innocently and with-
out compulsion. Allowing each of us individually to be free in this way is the
utopian element in such a view of experimental music. (It has also a kind of prac-
tical realism about it insofar as there is almost inevitably—especially in times
so  culturally heterogeneous as ours—a gap between the expressive intention
114 occasional pieces

behind a work and how its listeners [variously] understand it. The absence
of specific expressive intent would preclude misunderstanding about such an
intent. Or, to put it in another way, such an absence allows a work expressive
flexibility.)
When I began composing I had the notion—I don’t really know where it
came from—perhaps an adolescent impulse—that I should make a music unlike
any other. I was encouraged too by hearing for the first time, after a long immer-
sion in the older Western classical music (roughly from Bach to Brahms), the
string quartet music of Bartók, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern. (This was around
1949, when opportunities for hearing this music even in New York were very
rare, and no recordings were available.) The music, especially in its sonorities—
the kinds of noise it made, its continuities, its dissonances, felt extraordinarily
bracing and like nothing I had encountered before, and by virtue of this, liberat-
ing. I wanted in my way to do the same. And for the next twenty or so years, this
is what I tried to do, making a music that, whatever else might be said about it,
could be called experimental in the senses of that word suggested so far. But in
the early seventies, something caught up with me. Like many people at that time—
and they included a number of musicians with whom I worked, I was (to make a
longer story short and simple) politicized, and for the first time I thought about
the connections between my emerging political concerns and my musical work
(earlier involvement with pacifism and civil rights activity had had no such effect).
My previous work now seemed to me too esoteric, and, because of its perfor-
mance requirements, involving the players in a kind of exclusive, intense concen-
tration on each other’s sounds, too introverted: the gap between the performers’
involvement with a piece’s sound and the listeners’ seemed too large. What I was
doing musically seemed mostly inaccessible to people (including good friends)
who were generally speaking music lovers.
My first response was to attach to my music texts that were political in charac-
ter or implication. As I said earlier, social arrangements find in one form or
�another representation in music (as in any kind of human activity), either im-
plicitly or unconsciously, or explicitly and consciously. It could be said that my
work shifted from an implicit expression of the politics of a kind of democratic
libertarianism akin to anarchism, to an explicit politics of, roughly speaking, dem-
ocratic socialism. And in the music I tried to make my work less introverted,
less sparse, more of a response to what a larger number of people might recog-
nize as music.
What now has happened to the notion of experiment?
The combinations of sounds (not quite the sounds themselves) may have
something new about them, but the way they are put together also draws on
more familiar procedures. In the earlier Pairs (1969), for instance, there is hardly
a trace of usual musical techniques, at most a variant of hocketing (sharing out a
W hat Is Our Work? ( 1990) 115

melody line, mostly note by note, between two or more players), but without
fixed rhythmic definition; perhaps something like counterpoint in the overlaying
of paired players, but without any specific motivic relationships. No system is
used in the note-to-note procedure of composing. Perhaps most important
(though of course everything is important), the composing involved working
out the conditions under which something I would regard as musical, a process,
would be able to take place, conditions allowing a high degree of variability in
timing and in density of sound.
John Cage used to remark that he found my work musical (this was not a
value judgement); after a rehearsal of Bowery Preludes Garrett List said to me,
“Don’t get this wrong, I really like these pieces, they’re so unmusical.” Morton
Feldman was heard to say that the writing was idiomatic and unidiomatic. The
making of Pairs could be said to have spun itself out of itself (but I also think
there is something of Webern in the background, though not in any of the tech-
nical procedures). Bowery Preludes in 1987 uses counterpoint—the piccolo and
trombone duet, for instance, is a kind of two-part invention; there is identifiable
melodic hocketing; there are longer patches of clear rhythmic articulation (as far
as pitch is concerned, the earlier work starts with the assumption of complete
chromaticism, but has plenty of room for the appearance of diatonic moments,
while the later starts with diatonic material that easily shifts in and out of chro-
maticism; noise is always a possibility in both cases; I’m tempted to say that the
nondecorative presence of noise is one of the clearest identifying features of ex-
perimental music—and I’d be willing to extend the notion of noise to the way
sound appears in, say, Nancarrow or Lucier or even Feldman.)
Behind these differences in the more recent work (actually the work of about
the last seventeen years) is the technical—and more than technical—fact that
the music in many cases draws its material from songs, most of them not my own
but a variety of political songs, or folk songs or black spirituals, which have had
or have acquired association with political or social issues: for instance, in Bowery
Preludes use is made of the spirituals “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Oh Freedom,”
and “Set Down, Servant,” all songs originally expressing, under religious guise,
the Southern slaves’ aspirations to freedom, and then taken up again during the
civil rights movement in the sixties (I first heard “Mary Don’t You Weep” on a
highly political Staple Singers album in the early seventies). Also used are a black
prison song, “Ain’t no Mo’ Cane on Dis Brazis,” first sung by slaves in the cane
fields on the Brazos river in Texas and apparently still sung by the mostly black
prison population hired out to this day to work in those same fields, and a con-
temporary British women’s “Picket Line Song” written during an equal pay strike
in London in 1976. I should mention that one part of Bowery Preludes uses no
such song material and is notated in such a way as to focus the players entirely on
dynamics and sonority.
116 occasional pieces

The way the song material may be used varies, but mostly the pitch intervals
and the rhythms are variously represented, transformed, augmented, diminished,
extended by additive processes, and so forth. The song is rarely quoted directly.
(There are affinities here with Ives, for instance, and the English keyboard music
of the turn of the seventeenth century.) The songs—which I choose not just for
their political content but also because I really like them as songs—also provide
a kind of guiding spirit to the composing. It’s not that I set out to express in the
music the content of the song (the words would then in any case be necessary).
Rather, as for example in the trombone and piccolo duet in Bowery Preludes,
the partly humorous militancy of the “Picket Line Song” is both in the musical
material, in my hands, so to speak, being variously modified, and it’s in my head
as I work, as a kind of wider structure or scaffolding of feeling, which is not really
the same thing as setting out to make a piece intended to express humorous
militancy.
Now, what has happened to the notion of experimental as a way of working
that is free of specific or directed expressive intentions? Perhaps not so much.
Generally speaking, of course, I believe my earlier and later music sound differ-
ent (though there is still sometimes that thread of noise running between them).
But in each, earlier underlying, later perhaps more on the surface, earlier in the
way the sounds are made, later more in what the sounds refer to, there is a con-
cern about freedom. I don’t want to make any easy metaphorical jump from mu-
sical to political or even personal freedom; but if we believe that our music is part
of our larger social existence then some such connection, however flickering,
may be there. It is also the case that every work, no matter how indeterminate or
experimental, has its particular expressive horizons, even when what is expressed
is the freedom of sounds to be just sounds: that freedom is a signified meaning
made by us, not by the sounds. The expressive possibilities of, say, Pairs or a
given chance work by John Cage are delimited, only a certain range of expression
or meaning could imaginably be found in them, experienced because of them,
a range that can be identified (though you may not be able to put it into words).
Every piece, I think, has—in addition to the abstract arrangement of its sounds,
or simply the existence of its sounds and their possible relation to whatever
other sounds are going on around them—what I would call a content, some-
thing that it suggests, which is not the same as its sounds, though such a content
may deeply affect those sounds, how they are arranged and how they appear to
us. For example, in Cage, that content has often to do with nature, stars, the sea-
sons, plants, or the words of Thoreau. All this affects how we hear the sounds in
his music, how their horizon of expressiveness is indicated. In Pairs, the content
could be said to have something to do with working together, two by two. In my
more recent work, that content a number of times relates to a political mood,
assertive, resistant, commemorative, celebrative, for instance. The connection
W hat Is Our Work? ( 1990) 117

may be fairly tenuous or subterranean; it is often discontinuous. As for indeter-


minacy, it will always exist in some form; it’s our destiny, because we’re mortal.
The trick is not to forget it. In the recent music I’ve been speaking about one
could say that that indeterminacy is most interestingly active in the ways the
sound of a piece and its content interconnect or interfere with one another,
which will happen, in the always changing conditions of performance and listen-
ing, unpredictably.
Before concluding I would like to mention two more ideas that I think are
important, but not exclusively so.
Both these ideas have to do with renunciation or restriction, a kind of ascetic
minimalism (it’s a nice paradox that much of the music labeled minimalist, say,
the earlier Philip Glass and Steve Reich, was basically good time music). One is
the notion of musical poverty, of an avoidance of rhetoric, of the presence of
silence or spaciousness, of sparseness, of the irreducibility of material. One might
think of music of Satie, Webern, Feldman, Lucier, Cage, for example. The other
notion is of what Adorno refers to as “the ideal of darkness,” which does not
simply match what he feels to be the darkness of the times, of social reality, but
“does no more and no less than postulate that art properly understood finds hap-
piness in nothing except its ability to stand its ground. This happiness,” he con-
tinues, “illuminates the sensuous phenomenon from the inside . . . blackness
[darkness]—the antithesis of the fraudulent sensuality of culture’s façade—has
a sensual appeal.” These notions of poverty and darkness would function, so to
speak, to keep us honest; and Adorno adds the point that in their very function
their music achieves its peculiar beauty. As I said, I find these ideas of critical
importance, but not exclusively so. Necessary, but not sufficient, conditions
for our work.
So, what is our work? It is, I still believe, experimental music.

This text was presented as a John Spencer Camp Lecture at Wesleyan University, Middletown,
Connecticut, in 1990 at the invitation of Alvin Lucier.
20

On Charles Ives (1990)

I believe I first noticed Ives’s music—the sound of it—from haphazard listening


to the radio, hearing from somewhere in the middle of John Kirkpatrick’s record-
ing of the Concord Sonata (late sixties? early seventies?). Long before, I must
have been about fifteen, in the late forties, I had been given a stack of back issues
of New Music (Henry Cowell’s music publication project), including a collection
of percussion scores, William Russell’s work, John Cage’s Amores for prepared
piano and percussion, and pieces by Ruggles and Ives. I found all that music very
interesting, right up my alley—I wanted to make music unlike any I had previ-
ously known and here were others doing just that. The obvious struck me in Ives:
the extraordinary density and surface complexity of the music, the “impossible”
rhythms and the thick dissonances. But there was no way to hear it. Instead,
I met John Cage and was then engaged principally with his work, Webern, and
Satie (that is, I suppose, more with something like the Far East and Europe than
with the United States). When I finally heard some Ives (the sonata, distractedly,
on the radio) I certainly took notice—it seemed distinctive and peculiar, but
I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. At the time the piano use was not particularly
striking (I had by then heard Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, Cage’s Music of
Changes, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke) and the mix of extreme gestures and dis-
sonance with diatonic passages I found disconcerting. John Cage hardly ever
mentioned Ives’s work.
In the early seventies, my own work started changing somewhat (as I was
taking more notice of its relation to political questions). During a rehearsal of an
ensemble piece, Burdocks, which included my first straight-ahead, recognizable-
as-such tune, someone remarked that what we were doing made her think of
Ives. She (it was Kathy Morton) meant I think not only the presence of a tune
but the spirit of the whole piece, which involves a great deal of player interaction,
putting the piece together in ad hoc ways by virtue of various freedoms given the
players, the variety and mix of what was going on—from diatonic and rhythmi-
cally clear articulation to noise, the use of a variety of instruments including
homemade, “vernacular” ones (slide whistles, bird calls, harmonica), as well as

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120 occasional pieces

piano, strings, flute, horn, organ, and bandoneon (the choice of instruments for
the piece is free and variable), floating rhythms, space, and overlays. I hadn’t in
fact thought of Ives, but now I started to take notice (and the work had become
far more available than twenty years before). I heard (live) the first two piano
sonatas, the violin sonatas, the second string quartet (which I found especially
striking), songs, and through recordings some of the orchestra and chamber
pieces. I studied some of the scores, using pieces in my teaching. During an inter-
view sometime in the mid-seventies, the remark popped out that I thought of my
work as an odd sort of mix of Ives and Satie. And I read his writings as well as the
Cowell’s and Rossiter’s books about him.
Certain remarks in his writings were especially affecting, his feeling about
�democracy, political and cultural, his vision of music in nature, his pleasure in
the particular musicality of mixed professional and amateur performance, of its
rough-edged fervor; others were tiresome—his masculine anxieties.
I think that Elliott Carter’s allegations of technical crudeness in Ives are dis-
graceful. Ives’s resources seem to me almost always to work, to produce a music
with real life in it (in Carter’s music I usually find that technique is obtrusively
elaborated—the music is spooked by technical anxiety). Ives, what’s more, has
written an interesting technical essay on microtonality.
What I value very much in Ives’s music is the feeling of freedom conveyed by
the music’s capacity to surprise and his readiness to draw on whatever resources
are at the moment useful without regard to sociomusical proprieties and with a
kind of reckless abandon—which actually has often some relation to practical
considerations (for example band, theater, outdoor, church, and whatever other
nonformal concert situations, also what players, instruments, and capabilities
happen to be available). It’s a kind of freedom that can both stretch you and
Â�respond to a wide range of what’s out there in a larger world.
I also feel close to Ives’s efforts to make a contemporary music, belonging
to the twentieth century, to the United States, and experimental, which is not
esoteric, which can draw in various ways on popular music—music that people
might be familiar with or recognize as something they might know. This may
be, given Ives’s social world and (in different ways of course) ours, a nearly hope-
less project, but I think, as I guess he did, the only one worth pursuing.

Written in July 1990 at the request of David Patterson. It was accompanied by the following letter.

Dear David Patterson,


Here’s something on Ives. It turned out a bit more formal than I expected,
� and so
maybe a bit more general and less circumstantial than you might like. I think I’ve said
what seems to me most important. I could add that of the four of us, that is, Earle
Brown, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, my work seems to have the clearest affinities
with Ives, mostly because of my interest in using folk-song materials (nothing of the
kind as far as I know in Earle’s music; once in Feldman a tune he wrote as a teenager
O n Charl e s Ive s ( 1990) 121

based on a Hebrew melody finds its way into one of his pieces—Rothko Chapel; in
John’s pre-1951 work there are elements of some jazz, especially boogie-woogie and of
course before and after there is his use of “found” material—over radios, on recordings
of all kinds of music, but it’s just there, not written into and modulated by his own music
as in Ives). And I haven’t gone into detail about how this material is actually used—
I have, even after fairly careful study in some cases, not too clear an idea of how he actu-
ally did it, in any case differently from my ways. I’d be interested to know if you’ve found
(or have been interested in) a kind of second generation of experimentalists including
James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein, and Philip Corner, who seemed more directly
Â�involved with Ives, for example performing his work—their “group” played under the
name of Tone Roads. Additional thought on John Cage: there is of course the Thoreau
connection and the “cheap imitation” technique, recasting by chance the pitch content
of given melodic materials (Satie, Schubert, I know of): Cage’s most Ivesian work, at
least potentially (depending on how it’s done) I would think is Song Books.
With best wishes
21

Keith Rowe, A Dimension of


Perfectly Ordinary Reality (1990)

Keith Rowe is master of an invented instrument made out of electric guitar,


amplifier, speakers, various accessories (mostly quite ordinary), radios, and him-
self. All this working as one entity, organic as well as agglomerated—variously
seamless and discontinuous, but overall entirely itself, with a life and activity
originating in Keith’s head, though also, once activated, an intricate relay of
feedbacks throughout the whole system.
The music comes to us here through a recording, but it was made live, in real
time (some in studio, some in public performance). There is no overdubbing,
nothing is added, nothing is taken away.
The playing interweaves and overlays human and electric forces in such a way
that they become extensions of one another. As solo performance, it involves
a remarkable virtuosity, in the ingenuity inventing the system and its compo-
nents, the ways in which they are deployed, the sustained energy and presence of
the sound produced. And it is a self-effacing virtuosity, whose issue is simply
sound. All this calls to mind the qualities of the inventing-performing-composing
through electrical means of the former pianist David Tudor.
But this sound too can be powerfully expressive, because ambiguously so: a
sound, for example, which may strike us simply by the ingenuity of its making
and vivid presence or may alarm and disturb by evoking, say, explosions in
the street or may suggest machinery at work or even do these various things at
the same time. On the other hand, what may be most concretely evocative—the
words and musics or the radio transmissions, caught up in the overall flow of
sound—becomes ambiguous, or rather flickers between sound as sound and
sound as representation of meaning, with a general effect, at once disturbing and
energizing, of chunks of current (England, 1989) history caught up in a musical
process. This process engages with bits of the world outside sometimes humor-
ously or good-naturedly (the moments of pop and operatic music, the rocking,
diatonic sounds), sometimes with a dead-pan, unsettling, black humor (the fruity

123
124 occasional pieces

BBC voice going on about the effects of decapitation on the central nervous
system), in general strongly, intelligently, without panic, making a kind of counter
and transforming activity.
The music comes in four parts. First a longer improvisation, the most various
over a range of richly layered, sustained, textured, visceral, outrageous, mysteri-
ous, and delicately blended sound. Then an abbreviated version of Ode Machine
2, a solo from paragraph 5 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning that sets a
text (classical Chinese historical) under a graphic notation of single, wavy, jagged
and smooth lines indicating melodic contours to be improvised. This is read
doubly, with voice (used more like an instrument, the text only partly intelligi-
ble) and with guitar (sliding and wavering rather like a voice). Then, (3), a ver-
sion of Frank Abbinanti’s Citymusic, written for Keith Rowe rather as one might
write for an instrument, material to generate improvisation, with some reference
to categories of the known and the unknown, and to cities. And (4) a concluding
longer improvisation notable for its clear overall shape, brief and quiet in intro-
duction; then a long sustained sequence made up of alternating, rocking sound
patterns more or less clearly pitched and pulsed, tracing a gradual downward
curve, with increased distortion, and a somewhat shorter partial swing back
upward; then a second larger phase emerges, generally quiet, with more spaced
and isolated sound events, and, toward the final minute, including a version of
a page of Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score Treatise, sharpening the focus a little
differently, the very rare sound of one of the guitar’s strings simply plucked
(a low D), sounding into a few more discrete bowings of the strings, a light
percussive pattern, and a last bowed chord.

Liner notes for Keith Rowe’s A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality, Matchless Recordings
MR 19, 1990.
22

On Dieter Schnebel’s Marsyas (1990)

A few years ago, Dieter Schnebel sent this score with a dedication in friendship.
This is my effort to respond. I should say that my sense of his work as a whole is
very incomplete. We met congenially, in, I think, 1960, and I was struck by the
almost viscous density of the music I saw and the thinking that accompanied it.
I saw Bussotti perform an interestingly problematic concerto for soloist and au-
dience in 1961. We shared programs in Milan and Lugano in 1977, and I came to
know his extraordinary work for voice, specified in all the physical complexity—
and invention—of its production, and his formation of performances with
Â�nonprofessionals (usually younger students)—an interest we have shared. Now
Marsyas, for solo reed player and an accompanying string or plucked or percus-
sion instrument, is a beautifully lucid score.
Lucid, and also with its complexities and questions. The story of Marsyas—
represented by the Greeks as a silenos or satyr, with human body, ugly face,
pointed ears, and horse’s tail, a repugnant, alarming, and fascinating representa-
tion of the Other, which is also part of the self—“old and universal” is about, as
Schnebel well says in his preface to the score, “the self-forgetting wild one who,
because of the immediacy—the unmediated directness—of his playing, is flayed
to death by the power of order—and beauty.” (The story has it that Marsyas was
skinned alive.) Marsyas belongs to a group of doomed musicians, including
Thamyris and Orpheus who are associated with the wild margins of the ancient
Greek world, and beyond—Thrace and Phrygia, and who, in the myth’s moral-
izing, ideological perspective, are said to have offended, that is, challenged the
authority of the gods of the prevailing order, the younger Olympians. These mu-
sicians are, in the sphere of art and its soul-moving capacities, what the Titans
are in the sphere of the world’s politics: an older, unreconstructed stratum,
a Â�radical humanity as yet untamed by religious, social, and cultural constraints.
Though about the overriding power of order and beauty—ideologically the
“order and beauty” of overriding power—and about the past and defeat, this
mythology of rebellion still preserves and re-evokes rebellion’s spirit and force,
and price. Marsyas is among these musicians the extreme case, player of the

125
126 occasional pieces

Apollo, a Scythian (Athenian police/executioner, knife in right hand), Marsyas.


Hellenistic relief from Mantinea in the National Museum, Athens. Courtesy of the
Deutsches Archeologisches Institut, Athens. Photograph by W. Hege.

�
popular, extroverted aulos (reed pipe)—the others play lyre—unambiguously
foreign in origin and thus subject to Greek (Apollonian) racial contempt, and,
finally, subject to ignominious and brutal destruction (flaying is normally prac-
ticed on dead animals, and is a common metaphor in Greek for the physical
abuse of low human types). Dieter Schnebel’s music is presented from Marsyas’
perspective. But this presentation must be made dialectically, on the terms of
Marsyas’ enemies, in the ways of order, reflection, articulation, notation, and
even, as Schnebel says, beauty.
Marsyas and his story are drastically physical in character. The satyr is usually
pictured naked, his body straining, contorted in movement and seemingly fused
with the instrument he is playing. Usually too, in marked contrast, Apollo fully
clothed in flowing robes sits watching impassively. The horrific physicality of
Marsyas’ punishment hardly needs to be stressed (Orpheus was dismembered,
but in a moment of collective frenzy, not by coldblooded execution, and his head
is allowed to survive intact, still singing). The physical aspect of the myth is em-
blematic of the important dimension of Schnebel’s music, which is concerned
with precise and detailed indications of the physical processes of performing,
how the body’s parts produce sound and how the body moves. As he says in
his preface to the score, the music is about emotional states (gefühlsmäßige
O n D ieter Schnebel ’s Mar s ya s ( 1990) 127

Stimmung), the substance of experiences (Erlebnisinhalte), and “their bodily


instrumental expression in posture [physical presence], gesture, breathing, lip
movement, and hands’ grasp [pressure and movement of fingering],” all this in
closest interconnection.
The story tells of Marsyas’ defeat because of his alienness, his low status, his
partly nonhuman and unmitigated physicality, his reckless challenge, on the
basis of his art, to the art of a divine power politically established—and also be-
cause of his inarticulateness, his refusal of speech. It was Athena who first tried
to play the aulos but seeing how ugly her face became when she played it—her
features contorted with the effort of blowing—she angrily threw it away. Marsyas
picked it up. Apart from vanity and regard for her dignity and good appearance,
Athena’s rejection suggests a refusal—perhaps a fear—of an instrument that,
while being played, blocks—or transforms—its player’s access to speech, words,
or song. Marsyas also represents the possibility of a purely instrumental music
communicating only sound as such or only through sound, without human words.
The music Dieter Schnebel instigates with his score involves transformations
of words, as well as of musical signs and graphic indications of sound processes.
This seems to mark a change in his music as I know it, toward something like
program music, or toward a more verbally describable content. If the content
of earlier work is often the process of its production, that too is an element in
Marsyas. But now there is also a clearly articulated structure, in five parts,
whose titles and verbal performing instructions suggest the phases of a drama
of struggle—Â�from, as said, Marsyas’ perspective (1) “Outcries”—a state (I para-
phrase, select and condense from the instructions) of crisis, under extreme pres-
sure; (2) “Winding” [coiling, twisting, writhing]—elusive, perhaps embracing
action, condition of being gagged; (3) “Mourning”—at the center, clearest in
expression (the other parts have internal ambiguities and tensions), of grief and
the relief it affords; (4) “Rearing up” [prancing, rebellious movement]—process
of struggling up out of bondage; and (5) “Against the Wall”—extreme tension
seeking release.
This program, however, is also a practical aspect of the piece’s notation. Each
part is similarly presented: (1) a collection of pitches in treble (overall ambitus
from G below middle C to B above the stave) and bass (from lower B♭ on the
stave to G above middle C), including a few pitches notated with smaller note
heads, not otherwise explained (but recalling the structure of ancient Greek
scales in tetrachordal outlines with variable internal pitches)—and no specifica-
tion for applying treble to the solo reed instrument or bass to the accompani-
ment; (2) below the pitches a sequence of rhythmic elements, with some
�dynamic indications, phrasings (some various and superimposed, including
straight lines and very irregularly drawn ones suggesting sonic contours and pro-
cesses), and numbers over groups of short durations, suggesting gruppetti, and
128 occasional pieces

over single long notes, unexplained [this material in parts I and II is almost iden-
tical], all this specified for the solo instrument, while below a much simpler
�sequence is given for the accompaniment; (3) on the page facing these musical
and graphic notations, verbal instructions describing: (a) formal procedures to
be applied to the notated material (for instance go through the notated material
four to six times, with breaks between phrases becoming increasingly decisive,
then extending the phrases increasingly, including some repetition; (b) physical
posture or movement, especially as related to or coordinated with sound pro-
duction; and (c) combinations of specific physical actions related to sound pro-
duction (for instance mode of breathing, lip and fingering actions) and general
indications of feeling and expression, elements of the “program” described above.

Dieter Schnebel, Marsyas, section III. Copyright © 1979 Schott Music.


O n D ieter Schnebel ’s Mar s ya s ( 1990) 129

The score, then, has various indeterminate features, including its specific
�instrumentation. Performers must work out a performance version (and in all
likelihood re-notate for themselves individual scores). But this is clearly not a
Cagean indeterminacy. The requirements of the material seem quite precise,
a precision brought about because of the interaction of notated and verbal direc-
tions in which neither is subordinate, neither clear without the other, each
a  guiding metaphorical system for the other. Abstract notation is “explained”,
but not fully, and verbal description is transformed into sources of unverbaliz-
able sound, but the piece is presented under a clearly referential title, Marsyas.
Indeterminacy is part of this piece in order to accommodate the verbal di-
mension of it, and, as regards performers, to engage them directly with a part of
the compositional process, or rather to allow them directly to join a composition
process with a performing one. (One may think of the work of some United States
composers—in addition to Cage, say, Pauline Oliveros or my own work, or,
from England, Cornelius Cardew’s.)
The score, finally, also comes with a notated version of it by Dieter Schnebel
himself, not quite a performance realization (no instruments are specified) but,
apart from being beautifully made, a possible guide to the uses of the notation
and instruction material, a guide that both may limit realizations and suggest
some freedoms and extensions. For example, the pitch choices made by Schnebel
in his realization avoid any implications of systematic diatonicism, as in part III,
where the treble pitch material outlines D minor/major and G major/minor
triads (each filled out to make partial octatonic hexachords that are inversions of
one another), while the pitch material in the bass could be combined to form
eight different diatonic triads (but none of D or G). Dieter Schnebel’s version
does not seem to encourage any direct use of tonality. On the other hand, noth-
ing in the score explicitly forbids it. Yet, making a version of my own, taking care
not to look at Schnebel’s first, I found myself making pitch choices that turned
out to be quite similar to his—under the influence of the verbal material, the
program of the music. As for suggesting freedoms in preparing and performing
the music, one should note that Dieter Schnebel in his version every now and
again introduces pitches that are not in the given material (for example treble A ♭
in part III, bass B in part IV).
Two more thoughts. The accompaniment—for string, plucked or (one as-
sumes from Schnebel’s version, pitched) percussion instrument—belongs to
the sound world of Apollo the lyre player (lyres, or kitharas, might be either
plucked or struck). From a formal, musical point of view it is clearly subordinate.
One might be tempted to say that the image of highlighted soloist and subordi-
nate accompanist appears politically regressive. Yet here the soloist represents
the oppressed figure of Marsyas, while Apollo, the traditionally dominant figure,
is found playing a subservient role. However—again a dialectic is at work—the
130 occasional pieces

accompaniment has an acoustically critical role, providing resonance for the


�soloist, keeping the solo part from, so to speak, sonic isolation.
As for Marsyas, the myth has a Roman sequel, a movement into history.
Recalling an earlier comparison, in Plato’s Symposium, to that most dialectical
character Socrates, Marsyas becomes a figure of skill, wisdom, and prophecy.
His statue as an old silenus stood prominently in the Forum Romanum, “the
symbol of one responsible for ritually freeing the land,” a libertatis indicium,
which later becomes—among Rome’s colonial possessions—a Roman symbol
no longer of religious but now of political “liberty.”*

Written for the book SchNeBeL 60, edited by Werner Grünzweig, Gesine Schröder, Martin Supper,
Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 1990.

* Jocelyn Penny Small, Cacus and Marsyas in Etrusco-Roman Legend (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1982, pp. 68ff.
23

Floating Rhythm and Experimental


Percussion (1990)

I’m going to try to give some account of how I see percussion as an essential
Â�element of experimental music. I’ll also try to suggest what I mean by floating
rhythm—a notion that is often in my mind as an image from which to work. I will
also be saying something about percussion in my work—though I’d prefer to talk
about others’ work, but I feel too much limited at the moment in my knowl-
edge of that work, or else it seems to me, as say in the case of Varèse or John Cage,
to have produced already quite a lot of commentary and I don’t think I’d have
much new to add.
As for the percussion work of others, let me at least add some other names to
the two just mentioned and works, which I have found especially affecting or
congenial (or both): Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, James Tenney’s Drum Quartet
pieces, William Russell, Howard Skempton’s Drum 1, Morton Feldman’s The
King of Denmark (his only percussion piece), the drumming of Eddie Prévost,
Cornelius Cardew’s use of percussion in several parts of his The Great Learning,
Philip Corner’s Gong. I would like to include Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros,
but I know only indirectly of the former’s piece for solo triangle and his snare
drum piece and the latter’s Getting Your Rocks Off (one of her Sonic Meditations).
Thinking about these last two composers raises the question of what per-
cussion music might be said to be. What is the status of Lucier’s Music for Solo
Performer where the performer’s alpha waves are amplified to set off vibrations
from freely chosen sound sources that turn out mostly to be gongs, bass drums,
and the like? Or think of pieces like some of the Sonic Meditations that could in-
clude, but do not specify, the use of percussion instruments.
The fluid indeterminate element in saying what percussion music is draws
attention to questions about what sound generally is. This is one of the things
that puts percussion at the center of questions about experimental music.
Percussion points directly at sound as such and the actual process of producing it.
Percussion is open equally and freely to sound specified and not specified as to

131
132 occasional pieces

pitch. It comfortably includes noise, where the notion of what makes a sound
musical is most open.
With percussion as the main point of reference nonpercussion instruments,
say a violin, can also be seen as having percussive resources, considerable ones—
say striking (battuto), bouncing (spiccato), pushing (with heavy bow pressure)
as playing techniques, or, as material used, the wood of the bow, or the instru-
ment’s body. A reciprocal relation too may be established between nonpercus-
sive and percussive resources, for instance, in the notion of using a bow, bowing
on suspended metal, or in the possibility that a percussionist might whistle or
hum or sing.
Percussion’s natural tendency to have us think of and experience sound com-
prehensively corresponds to a sense I have that a given music or piece is most
immediately identifiable by the kind of noise it makes, an essential sonority or
process of sonority. One distinguishing feature of experimental music, I have
thought, is the intended or welcome presence of noise in it somewhere, and by
extension that one thinks of it most clearly from a global view of noise, rather
than from the perspective of a discourse of pitch or rhythm or timbral structures
simply (I have in mind, for examples, Lucier’s or even Feldman’s music).
I am myself partial to the presence, various or intermittent, of some noise,
fuzz, or buzz or flat or sharp thudding or knocking in contexts that appear car-
ried along by the linear use of pitch and rhythm. (I believe that this is a feature of
some traditional African musics, as with the loose, rattling metal rings on the
Mbira or the buzzing membranes on deliberately made holes in the gourds that
serve as resonators on balaphones.) The inclusion of noise makes the sound
more comprehensive, alert and various in its continuity. It opens the sound up,
brings the more specialized musical sounds (pitched, on familiar instruments)
into something more like peaceful coexistence with, or if you will, a more lively
dialectical relation to the world of sounds all around us.
Sometimes, when working especially with pitch constructs and finding the
procedures I happen to be using leading me into an impasse (a quandary about
what pitch or pitches to use), I’ve dealt with the difficulty by calling for a noise
in the place of a pitch. (I had once done something like this when, reaching
a  point of impossible rhythmic and performing complexity, the tempo was
Â�declared to be “zero,” a realignment of the task to be realized.)
Noise as an intrinsic rather than intrusive element in one’s working with
sound opens up the usual parameters. Rather than thinking primarily along a
continuum defined by, say, pitch relations, one can decide on more inclusive
or changing parameters, for example shifting from pitch to noise to duration to
�dynamic level can be a line of organization or collection of material. The compo-
sitional process shifts explicit attention from one kind of sound element to an-
other, variously. In my own case this involved (in work done more or less in the
Fl oating R hy thm and Ex per ime ntal Pe rcus s i on ( 1990) 133

sixties) shifting specifications and degrees of specification: for example, a sound


specified as to pitch (or a performer’s choice from a particular collection of
pitches) and dynamic, the next specified only by dynamic, another by duration
and timbre, another by its being a noise, another of specific pitch, dynamic, and
duration. That’s what’s composed; the aspects of the sound not specified are left
to the performer to determine, variably, before the actual performance or in the
process of performance.
The disposition required of a performer in this kind of situation, regardless of
the instrument being played (often the instruments were not specified), seemed
to me most like that of a percussionist: someone with tasks to perform, adjust-
ments to be continuously made, materials to be intelligently laid out and moved
about in, capable of adjusting coolly to circumstances without prejudice or inhi-
bition, having a sense of varying spaces of time, able to do a lot quickly and pre-
cisely in a short time or do one simple thing at leisure, while in either case acting
with equal attention and focus, and generally being consistently alert and re-
sourceful; also being a good listener, both to what one is oneself doing (down to
the quiet tuning of timpani) and to the whole sound situation around one, when
waiting to enter into it and when hearing oneself in it.
The self-reliant aspect of the percussionist’s role has to do with an inevitably
indeterminate dimension of percussion. Players have to make many specific de-
cisions because their sound material is relatively little standardized in the charac-
ter of its sound, resonance, tuning; and possible playing techniques may be
quite various.
One last point about the noise aspect of percussion. It seems to me that what
gives a sound, a musical sound, its quality of presence is noise, the element of
noise in it, which is due to the process of producing the sound with the materials
of an instrument and the body’s physical action on and with those materials. For
instance, the sound of fingers shifting and sliding over the strings and against the
fingerboard on a guitar, or the sound of the key mechanisms on a piano, or the
sound of a bow’s horsehair drawn across a metal-wound string—which is coter-
minous with but not quite the same as, say, the E♭ and its overtones which that
action produces. Percussion in this light is a kind of distillation of what makes
musical sound alive. This noise, rather like percussion in the overall context of
our musical culture, is at once, as an apparent byproduct or accompaniment of
music making, marginal, and yet, as an irreducible and necessary ingredient in
the life of a sound, central. (It’s this noise element, by the way, which seems most
resistant to electronic synthesis: it’s too complex.)
So far, then, noise and percussion. That leaves rhythm as the other main di-
mension in which one thinks of percussion. Where, apart from the specifically
pitched percussion instruments (and even there the bell-related ones are a spe-
cial case because of their complex overtones), the parameters of pitch and
134 occasional pieces

timbre, are not exactly or predictably available, rhythm is left as the most articulable
and practical means of organizing your sound. The link of working almost exclu-
sively with percussion and the development of comprehensive rhythmic struc-
tures along with the thinking that, if music is constituted out of sound and
silence (or the absence of intended sound), then duration, articulated by rhyth-
mic structure, is the one and only parameter shared by sound and silence and so
is the necessarily logical way to organize music—all this is familiar from early
work of John Cage. And now we also know, thanks to William Brooks, about
Ives’s way of making his music percussively, that is, according to the rhythmic
structures of the percussion parts when these are with pitched instruments, re-
versing the usual procedure by making the percussion parts supported and com-
plemented by the other, conventionally pitched instruments. “Ives,” Brooks says,
“required himself to center his compositions in the domain of rhythm without
relying on pitch to organize that domain. Confronted with this dilemma, he
turned to percussion.”1
It is worth recalling too that rhythm has a primary structural role in some of
the oldest kinds of music—dance music, work music, and, I suppose, marching
music, that is, in deeply rooted popular musics.
The links between percussion and what is experimental, which seem to me
most evident, are indeterminacy, noise, and rhythm or time duration and articu-
lation as the essential defining element of the music. This latter (rhythm) is most
clearly established by the work of Ives and Cage. Among composers whose work
best exemplifies the connection of experimentalism with a primary view to noise
or overall sonority are Varèse, Feldman, Lucier, and David Tudor.
The presence of percussion does not of course invariably imply experimental-
ism. It often does nothing of the sort. We might, then, have in mind at least a
general and tentative notion of what is experimental in the light of which the use
of percussion could be considered. Let’s say a way of making music that pro-
vokes, whether in the composed work or the performer’s mind and practice or in
the listener’s perception (or in any combination of these), a questioning or re-
newed questioning of what music actually is or does. A music that, while still
working in some way as we may imagine music to work, does not, in some
degree, in some way, allow you to take music for granted. I don’t mean by this
some kind of modernist notion of self-reflexivity—like the idea of poetry about
poetry. What I mean is that experimental music allows a summoning up of a
state of particular awareness or alertness to what is actually going on. The music
is in the feeling and presence of the sound as you hear it, with liveliness, nothing
routine, everything appearing as though for the first time.

1
╇ W. Brooks, “A Drummer-Boy Looks Back: Percussion in Ives’ Fourth Symphony, Percussive
Notes 22.6, September, 1984, p. 7.
Fl oating R hy thm and Ex per ime ntal Pe rcus s i on ( 1990) 135

Experiment suggests newness, but this newness is also embedded in wider


historical conditions. The newness in an art, in music, is bound up with an inev-
itable newness, the continual changing of historical process. What matters is that
we, perhaps through an art that we practice, be aware, ask questions, and exercise
choice when determinations of change are before us. Such awareness, question-
ing and exercises if they involve an art can make that art new.
It should be remembered that experimental percussion music had origins in
the Italian Futurist movement (Luigi Russolo produced his manifesto on “The
Art of Noises” in 1913) and that this movement was deeply implicated in the
development of fascist ideology. On the other hand, the first great wave of
United States and Latin American percussion music came in the 1930s and
partly had affinities with a progressive Left, that is, its experimentalism ran par-
allel with a wider left and populist movement among a spectrum of composers
that at the time reached from, say, Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford to Aaron
Copland. I mention this because this talk is given under the general rubric of
“experiment and revolution” that suggests the possibility of a connection be-
tween percussion, experimentalism and politics. This is a connection I welcome,
but with the caution that an intelligible sense of politics requires us to think of
experimental music and percussion within their historical contexts.
As for my own work: out of at the moment some ninety odd pieces, about
twenty-seven involve percussion in some way (including the use of preparations
in the piano), and another fifteen or so include unspecified instrumentation that
could accommodate percussion. Four pieces are exclusively for percussion.
(Why not more? Perhaps a certain diffidence after the work of Varèse and Cage,
and the practical consideration that the musicians I tended to work with were
not primarily percussionists.)
These four pieces—they come in pairs—are Stones (1960) and Sticks (1970),
from a set called Prose Collection, and two Exercises, 26 and 27 (Snare Drum Peace
Marches), for snare drum solo (1988). In each case the percussion writing is part
of the sum of what I happen to be doing at the time as well as an attempt to re-
spond to some of the features that seem to me inherent in the use of percussion.
Stones and Sticks, along with the other pieces in the Prose Collection were written
for use by nonprofessional players as well as nonmusicians, people with an inter-
est in music, especially experimental music, strong enough to make them want
to try playing some. The pieces take as a premise that everyone has available to
them a voice and the capacity to make percussive sounds, as well as find or con-
struct material with which to make such sounds. The “scores” are prose instruc-
tions available to anyone who can read English. Stones goes like this:

Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of
sizes and kinds (and colors); for the most part discretely; sometimes in
136 occasional pieces

rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but
also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for in-
stance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not
break anything.

Experimental here means, in general, indeterminacy. It also means working di-


rectly for and, so to speak, through performers in a way that is collaborative and
nonhierarchical. The score’s nature is such that it cannot assert absolute author-
ity, and, though this isn’t explicit, the players (if there are more than one) have to
come to an agreement about how they will set about doing the piece, deciding
together or (and) delegating leadership and so forth. Experimental here also
means going directly to the material basis of the sound, which is itself not neces-
sarily musical in any familiar way (though after I had made the piece I learned
about classical Chinese stone chimes). The piece originated as an informal solo
exploration, on a long afternoon on a stony beach, of some of the range of
sounds, resonances, pitches, and articulations possible, using one specified kind
of (percussive) material. Rhythm isn’t specified. It could be patterned as the
player decides or (and) simply emerge from the process of exploring the sound
possibilities, the noise, of one’s stones.
The snare drum pieces (written for Stuart Saunders Smith) are notated ex-
actly and conventionally with regard to rhythm. The music looks pretty normal.
One of the pieces is made isorhythmically with as many as three “voices.” At the
same time, the uses of the notated music are quite flexible. The instructions for
Exercise 27 are as follows:

Consider various ways of playing, for example with fingers (both


hands), tips, nails, knuckles, one or more at a time, tapping, snapping,
plucking (snares), head and elsewhere. Notes longer than a quarter note:
usually trill (tremolo, roll), slide, scrape, blow on drum head, whistle.
Try slowish tempo, dancelike (say, sarabande); try faster, for example
whatever allows six sixteenth notes just to articulate to a beat. Play soft,
strong, not much in between. Snares on/off as occasion allows. Possibly
amplify, not too much. Try using sticks.

These Exercises could be regarded as “professional,” virtuosic versions of a piece


like Stones where the exploration of the sound material as such is a basic ingredi-
ent. They are also part of a series of Peace Marches begun in 1983, the first in fact
to use an instrument closely associated with marches, but used, I intended, in
such a way as to cancel any military associations—as a solo, partly a private
event, with some feeling of quiet and turning inward, though also with its sense
of direction and purpose.
Fl oating R hy thm and Ex per ime ntal Pe rcus s i on ( 1990) 137

In the early seventies, my work partly changed course, in part because of


a kind of political waking up on my part. I felt a need to bring about explicitly
a coordination of my music and my political convictions (antiwar, and left gener-
ally). The first piece clearly in this direction was Accompaniments (1972), written
for Frederic Rzewski, who shared political sympathies and the concern to con-
nect them to musical work, a piano piece of some virtuosity also requiring the
performer to speak (or, optionally, chant or sing) a text about the practical ef-
fects of Maoist thinking in a Chinese village in the wake of the cultural revolu-
tion; and then requiring him to coordinate with the keyboard playing a bass
drum and high hat with his feet. Both the singing and the percussion playing are
allowed some flexibility, making them adaptable, musically floating and practical
for something that pianists don’t generally do professionally. (I mentioned ear-
lier the general availability, the democratic pool so to speak, of uses of the voice
and percussion playing.) In this piece, the percussion also had a programmatic
aspect: I associated the drum and cymbal with Chinese public celebration.
As it happened, my first two explicitly political pieces, Accompaniments and
then Changing the System (1972–73), both pieces of some scope and length and
both using strong political texts, included percussion as an important compo-
nent. Changing the System is an ensemble piece requiring at least two groups of
four players and allowing any larger number to play (the maximum playing that
I know of has been forty-eight). Instrumentation (pitched) is unspecified. The
degree of the players’ professional or nonprofessional skills and experience re-
quired is variable. Everyone is also required to use their voices (pitches for the
voices are unspecified, and may be spoken, chanted, or sung) and to play percus-
sion. The music is “scored” for individual quartets of players, each quartet func-
tioning as an independent unit. Each group of four people plays according to
rules of coordination specific only to itself. How the quartets relate to each other
is unspecified. As the individuals in a quartet master their internal coordination
they can then play as a group—the internal coordination being flexible enough
to allow this—freely in response to other groups. Each group, you could say, acts
locally but is encouraged also to function globally.
The percussion sections work like this: each of the four players in a group
chooses four sound-producing objects, identified as 1, 2, 3, 4, in order of increas-
ing resonance. The score specifies for each player which of the four objects is
struck, and whether at some degree of soft (piano) or loud (â•›forte); every so often
one of the numbers is circled, indicating a sustained or continuing sound, using
either the numbered object or, going outside the system, if so chosen, using any
other sound (percussive or not), this sound to be sustained, as chosen, through
either the next four or next eighteen sounds or to a next point where there is a
cue in that player’s part. Each quartet then, apart from these sustained sounds,
produces a succession of simultaneous attacks, four-sound chords, all four
138 occasional pieces

p� layers playing at once according to a cue, a downbeat, given by one of the players
as specified in the score. The assignment of who gives the downbeat varies and
changes continually, sometimes indicating a different player for each of a succes-
sion of simultaneous attacks, sometimes the same player cueing a sequence of at-
tacks (at most one player can cue five successive chords before another takes over).
The timing of the chords, their rhythm, when the cues are given, is free (within
limits of playability), is improvised collectively: it could be said to float on or in
a process of four people (along, possibly, with n times four additional people,
freely overlaid and juxtaposed) occupied by a succession of specific tasks whose
realization is both prescribed and self-chosen.
The title of the piece is taken from the text it sets, part of a speech given by
Tom Hayden sometime around 1970, about the need for fundamental change of
our dysfunctional social system in order to achieve an adequately workable and
just society. I had in mind that the percussion in this piece—in conjunction with
the ways the piece as a whole is done—represent a focusing of concerted, per-
suasive but not coercive energy and—it’s hard to get this exactly into words—a
kind of revolutionary noise.
Of more recent pieces, Bowery Preludes (1985–86), Digger Song (1988), and
Rosas (1989–90) include percussion. Pitch and rhythmic material is drawn from
various old and new political songs. The writing is mostly contrapuntal, often
hocketed, and the percussion, both specifically pitched and not, is treated as one
or more of the voices (and sometimes melody instruments make parts of their
lines with noises of unspecified pitch).
Now, not so much in conclusion as continuation, let me say a few things
about the piece Stuart Smith and I are going to play, Edges. It was written in 1968,
for any number of players, instruments not specified, originally for performance
by a group of English musicians, joined at the last minute by Frederic Rzewski
and myself. The only professional percussionist in the group was Eddie Prévost.
I had been for some months hearing and sometimes playing and improvising
with the other musicians, mostly members of the group AMM, and Cornelius
Cardew, including perfomances of Cardew’s non-instrument-specified scenario
and project pieces The Tiger’s Mind and Schooltime Compositions, which encour-
aged me to work out differently flexible notations and fluid structures of my
own. That year—from 1968 to 1969—was to be remembered by many, espe-
cially in Europe, and especially France, as a year of revolution—above all revolu-
tion of the young, of students, and also in this country of those involved in civil
rights struggles—yet we in London at the time were pretty much out of touch
politically. Nevertheless, the musical work we were involved in had in fact im-
plicit in it social issues. Its context was clearly countercultural. The musicians
were dropouts from conventional musical careers. The concert at which we
played Edges took place in an alternative, multiethnic location (the London
Fl oating R hy thm and Ex per ime ntal Pe rcus s i on ( 1990) 139

International House). I don’t remember anyone getting paid. A few months later,
Cardew, with the other musicians, was to found the anarchically and democrati-
cally constituted Scratch Orchestra, based at Morley College, an educational in-
stitution primarily for working-class adults.
The score of Edges—of which each player has a copy (part and score are the
same)—consists of thirty-one different notations, each standing by itself, dis-
posed over the space of a single sheet of paper. A few of the notations are conven-
tional: a dynamic indication, two rhythmic notations, but in isolation, and the
rhythmic notations are shorthand for “very rapid” and “short,” not tempo indica-
tions, but descriptions of the characteristics of sound activity. Other notations
indicate, for example, “sudden,” “spaced,” “clear,” “intricate,” “dirty,” and “play
Â�simultaneously with the next two sounds you hear.”
The idea of the piece and its basic performing instructions are this: the nota-
tions on the score are not so much playing instructions as such as reference
points, that is, you do not primarily play a given notation (say, the one indicating
“intricate”) as play around it, at varying distances from the state of being intri-
cate, and you can, but only once in a performance, simply play “intricate.” The
general notion I had was of the score’s being something like a photographic neg-
ative the developed picture of which would be realized by the playing; or, to use
another analogy, the playing would be like movement, dancing say, in a space
containing a number of variously shaped but transparent and invisible objects
that the dancing generally avoids, but which as the dancing kept on would become
evident, visible so to speak, because they are always being danced around. The
piece is not quite simply improvisation, but experience with improvisation is
very useful in performing it. It has been my assumption that at least several
people would play (some of the notations—“play simultaneously with the next
two sounds,” for instance, or “directly after another’s long sound”—imply this),
though a solo version is possible (nothing says you have to work with all the
notations).
As far as percussion is concerned, the score neither invites nor excludes it spe-
cifically. To be sure, a number of notations may be taken to refer to qualities of
noise, or sound as such, mostly without reference to pitch, rhythm, or timbre.
A situation, I think, more self-evident to a percussionist than other instrumen-
talists (though perhaps sometimes self-evident to instrumentalists in a rock band).
A lot is left floating.
This text is based on a lecture presented at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention’s
Research Symposium in 1990. It was then printed in the Percussive Arts Society Research
Proceedings, vol. 1, 1991.
24

Quiet Music (1991)

It is “quiet”—I think I have come to see through the experience of the work of
these composers at Boswil and through thinking of music that might be congen-
ial to theirs—not so much because quiet rather than loud (it might be loud
enough sometimes) as because of qualities of rhythm and sonority. There is an
overall rhythmic sense not of single-tracked momentum but of diffusion and
suspension, moving out as though from various centers. As a result, the sonority
is not in aid of the movement but is realized by it, and the sonority, in all its var-
ious specificity, is what you listen to; otherwise you won’t hear a thing. The quiet
of this music requires that you listen actively. The music requires your engage-
ment with it. It has no rhetoric, or, you could say, its peculiar rhetoric is conver-
sational. Not a rhetoric of power but of the distribution of power (potentially),
between where the sound comes from and where it is going (listeners).
The limitations of such a music, you might think, would be its tendency to be
private, conversation among just a few people. But this may also be its strength:
it may be oppositional, a counter rhetoric to what we are mostly, “normally” of-
fered. To be with this music is to find a kind of refuge from the violence of the
times. But then the real strength of quiet music would be to make that refuge
a way station (there are no refuges): to begin to undo and unmask that violence.

Written in 1991 at their request after being, with Roland Moser, Dieter Schnebel, and Jakob
Ullmann, jury member for the composition seminar in Boswil, Switzerland, in 1991, whose
theme was “quiet music.”

141
25

Interview with Cole Gagne (1992)

Were you musically active as a child, or did that develop after you came
to the States?

Well, I was a child when I came to the States; I was seven when I got here. And
I started piano lessons at about eleven, twelve, something like that. We came in very
reduced circumstances, so we had no piano with us in New York until I was about
fourteen or fifteen. I had to go out to other people’s houses to play the piano.
There was music in the family. My father had musical connections and was a
very good friend of Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin and the musicians around
them. They both lived in New York at the time and my parents would take me
along to all sorts of musicales and concerts, so I had a large, extensive exposure
to classical music from a very early age. There were no long-playing recordings
then, but there was radio: WNYC was already operating and doing a full day’s
worth of classical music, so you could hear a fair amount that way. Otherwise,
you had to get your music by going to concerts, which I did a lot of as a kid.
I got interested in pianists when I was in school, and I would go to as many
concerts as I could—I’d usually go at intermission, and would slip in for free.
And I got to know the repertoire that way: Bach through Brahms, more or less.

So you were particularly interested then in pianists and their technique?

Yeah, right. In fact, for a while I had this notion that I would like to become
a Â�pianist. But I just didn’t have it, and that established itself fairly early on.

When did you start getting interested in contemporary music?

We spent time with this Viennese family—they were psychoanalysts—who had


a summer place in Vermont. They used to commute down to Tanglewood, which
was fairly straightforward in those days. (This is long before they had composers
there or anything like that.) But the Juilliard Quartet had just started to play

143
144 occasional pieces

Bartók quartets and the Viennese school, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. And
we went to this concert because the people were Viennese; they didn’t like the
music, but they went because it was Viennese. So I heard this concert of
Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and I was just absolutely taken with that; I really
thought this was great, this was wonderful. Which was for me very surprising
because I had been extremely conservative in my musical tastes—in fact, obnox-
iously so: I would boo at new-music pieces in concerts. I was really dreadful.
But this stuff seemed to me to be something. And about the same time, it was
clear that I wasn’t going to become a professional performer, that I just didn’t
have the skills for performance. But listening to all that music, I wanted to do
something. I didn’t want to just take it in passively. So I started trying to com-
pose, entirely on my own. Somebody had given me a basic theory book that was
wonderful: It had almost all the information you really needed. Using it at first—
this is before hearing that new music—I tried to make Bach-like pieces (not very
successfully). But then, when I heard this other music, I suddenly thought, yes,
this is what I want to do; I want to do something that just doesn’t sound like
anything else. I didn’t want to imitate just that music, but the whole idea of start-
ing new, starting all over, that suddenly caught my fancy. So that’s when I started.

You would have been about fourteen, fifteen?

I was about fifteen, sixteen, somewhere in there, yeah.

Did you start tracking down scores by Schoenberg or Webern to see how they
had done what they had done?

You know, I don’t think I did, curiously enough. I just listened to the music and
then did my own, which had obvious echoes. The fact that they could do the
kinds of things they were doing suggested to me that I could also write atonal
music, use noises, do all these various things—unconventional things from a
classical point of view. But no, I didn’t do it very systematically then. The whole
notion of analysis didn’t come up until I met John Cage. He took me as a student
and we had a very short session of teaching. Among the assignments I had was to
analyze the first movement of the Webern Symphony, opus 21. And you couldn’t
get these scores—you had to go to the library for them. But he had gone to the
library and copied out the first movement himself and that’s what we were using.

Other than your piano lessons, those sessions with Cage were as close as you
came to studying music with someone?

Essentially, yeah.
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 145

Had there been a point when you’d wanted to find some other teacher?

It did occur to me. When I still thought I had possibilities as a performer, I’d
considered going to a conservatory instead of college. But I was pretty much dis-
couraged from doing that—rightly, in retrospect. In those days, there was just no
music going on at the university, which seemed to me interesting. I went to
Harvard, where there was Walter Piston—who was a great guy, actually—and
Randall Thompson. But musically, for my own feeling, it was a desert. So I
thought, all right, I’ll do something else. Also, the notion I’d gotten very early
was that there was no way to make a living out of being a composer; that seemed
to me to be totally out of the question. So I thought I’d better see about doing
something else, and since I had a lot of literature in my background—my father
was a publisher and so forth—that’s what I did. I started out doing English,
but then I thought, no, there’s too many people doing that, and I drifted into of
all things Classics as a way of making a living to support my composing habit.
I would have liked to study with someone who would have allowed me to do
what I thought was the thing to do at the time, but I just didn’t see that anywhere—
apart from the luck of having run into Cage. The other composer at the time
whom I knew—in fact, he was a neighbor of ours, sort of a friend of the family—
was Varèse. And I had thought of asking to study with him, but then the Cage
thing came up instead, and that was that. And Cage was so encouraging—he
didn’t seem to think it was a problem. We worked formally for only about six or
eight weeks, and the reason we stopped was because he finally said, “Well, the
only point of studying music is to learn about discipline. You seem to be able
to impose your own disciplines, so we don’t need to go on with this stuff.” And
that was it.
In retrospect, there are times I think it might have been quite useful to have
done it and to have certain kinds of facility in writing, which extended study
�obviously teaches. If you have to turn out counterpoint exercises for so many
months of the year, you get kind of handy at doing that, and presumably that can
transfer to your own work. But that I didn’t have, and still don’t—writing comes
hard; it’s just this really hard work.

Did you find it was difficult to get a job teaching music at a university with-
out your having studied formally?

No, actually. The one I got I got really by accident. I started out as a fulltime
Classicist, and I taught for eight years at Harvard. Then, when that job ended, I
was looking around for another one. For various personal reasons I had this con-
nection at Dartmouth, and I went up there to interview for a Classics job. While
I was there, I met Jon Appleton, who knew of me as a composer by then, and he
146 occasional pieces

said, “If you’re coming to Dartmouth, you really should be part of the Music
Department too.” And I said, “Well, that’s fine if you can arrange it.” We had an
enlightened Dean who thought this was a great idea and was not in the least bit
disturbed that I hadn’t any official credentials. So that was very nice.

Had you wanted to teach music at Harvard but been stonewalled by the
administration?

No, no. I could have done a music thing and then taught music, which is what
people do now. But I didn’t want to do that. I like to teach a lot, actually. But I
did not want to be teaching something that I was myself working in crea-
tively—it was just too much of a distraction and would muddy the waters.
Another way of looking at teaching is that you become an established com-
poser and therefore you teach yourself, so to speak. And I certainly had no
notion of anything like that. Teaching people counterpoint and harmony,
which I myself had no particular interest in or training in or skill at, seemed to
me totally ridiculous. And as far as teaching composition, I still don’t know
how to do it. It’s like teaching poetry. You can obviously teach certain tricks—
you teach people how to prepare a score properly and check various technical
things—and you kind of encourage them, but what else can you really do in
this day and age? Since we have no fixed styles, no standards so to speak. I don’t
think it can be done.

Has teaching Classics fed something into your work as a composer?

Not directly, no. I think the connection is that I’m interested in teaching, in ped-
agogy. As somebody once pointed out to me, a lot of my music has a pedagogical
character to it. Which is not something I deliberately chose to do, but I think that
is the case. If there is a connection, it’s on that level.

Your music was performed in the fifties when you were seventeen, eighteen
years old. Was there ever the reaction that you were too young to be a seri-
ous composer?

I don’t think so. Within the circle in which I found myself, that was not a prob-
lem; with Cage, Feldman, Brown, David Tudor, and so forth, I just happened to
be the youngest one. And I was the one who went off to college—I suddenly
disappeared from the scene because I had to go to college! So that was a little
odd. But Feldman was twenty-six, twenty-seven, and the rest weren’t that much
older. Otherwise, the question of my being accepted or not accepted was not an
issue, because what we were doing was off from everything else.
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 147

If the musicians were hip enough to want to play it, they wouldn’t be both-
ered by the fact that you were eighteen.

Exactly.

Your compositional use of cueing the musicians strikes me as really unique in


Western music. Before your work, it was largely a non-issue: A composer would
orchestrate a piece, and have, say, the flute stop and the clarinet enter, but one
player wouldn’t have to listen to the other for a cue to start. In jazz or in so-called
ethnic or folk music, this situation is more common, but not in concert music.

Well, it is there at a certain level, by implication. When a string quartet plays, ob-
viously they have to listen to each other. But you’re right, it was essentially writ-
ten into the scores so that, theoretically, if you did exactly what was written into
the score, that should take care of it.

By reading the score and counting the beat, the players would know when to
enter. But your use of cueing reminds me of Zeno’s paradox of motion, where
he continuously halves the length between any two points, demonstrating
that an infinite amount of space resides within any distance. You’ve shown
that there’s a whole world of rhythm to explore in that space between when
the flute stops and the clarinet starts.

Yes, and I was interested in that. I was interested in two things. One was indeter-
minacy and the other was this thing of being just slightly off a fixed point. The
fixed point is abstract in any case, but in classical music the notion of fixed points
is very important: bar lines and all of that stuff. What I got interested in was the
idea of just being a little bit off of it. And you can do that. Cornelius Cardew has
some scores with conventional notations, but the instructions are to play just off
the beat. I’ve never heard those pieces and I don’t know if it really works. It’s hard
to make people do that, because the other model is so deeply ingrained and diffi-
cult to resist. Grace notes come the closest; grace notes and fermatas, you might
say, are the two models for the kind of rhythm I’m interested in. If you have a
grace note and you remove the beat, which is one way of looking at it, or if you
have only fermatas, that would be the situation in which I operate. I didn’t think
of it that way at the time, but in retrospect that would be one way to describe it.

Had you been listening much to jazz?

When I was a kid in high school, I used to go listen to Dixieland a lot. Which is
not the same thing: The beat there is very square, although the improvisatory
148 occasional pieces

feeling is certainly there. And I liked that music a lot. It was the first nonclassical
music that I got into. In the late forties and early fifties, popular music for my
feeling was nowhere, it was awful—unlike now when it’s really interesting, or has
possibilities and is diverse; that’s really where things are happening. But jazz I
found really moving.

But it wasn’t a question of hearing the jazz musicians and thinking of your
performers cueing each other.

No, no. I just kind of stumbled on it. It took two steps. The first indeterminate
pieces I did were not cued. They were in a sense conventionally scored, insofar as
time spaces were determined. But they were very irregular. I did it with seconds,
and so you might have a space of two seconds—okay, that’s pretty clear. But you
might have one of seven-eighths of a second, or five and one sixteenth seconds:
really irregular ones. And they were only spaces, and you were to do things
within those spaces. But you didn’t have to describe the space; you didn’t have to
have something beginning at the start or stopping at the end. You had this space
and somewhere inside of that you did something. This music was for two per-
formers: Frederic Rzewski and myself. We didn’t have time to write a fully no-
tated piece, and so I just stumbled on this idea. And it worked and we really liked
doing it. Each of us would prepare our parts, but then when we started playing
together, because we had these variable spaces within which to work, you would
respond, almost inevitably, instinctively. And then also consciously you’d be re-
sponding to the other player, and in a way other than normal ensemble playing
because you’d hear something and you could either play immediately after it, try
to play with it, or wait a little bit before you play. So there’s a whole range of pos-
sibilities there, which form a kind of improvisatory situation. I think it must have
been from that sort of accidental cueing that I got the notion of actually making
it specific. The next idea was again to have those fixed spaces but in units that
could be of variable sequence: Essentially the score’s on one page, and you can
go from one point to any other. The model for that was that Stockhausen’s
Klavierstück XI. But that’s a solo piece, and I always thought it was a little bit of a
scam because what was supposed to determine the indeterminate sequence was
your roving eye. Wellâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›the eye roves but you can also make it go, and the fact is
you tend to shape it pretty much as you want to shape that piece. But if you have
two people, and the response has to be something that you hear from the other
person, which is unpredictable and over which you have no control, then you’re
really in a situation that is indeterminate. And that’s how I got onto the cueing
thing. You’d have these longer units that would be cued by a particular sound:
“Play this section here after you have heard a loud, high sound.” You can start
somewhere where there’s no cue, because you have to start, right? And you’re in
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 149

that, and then as you get to the end of that measured space, you have to start lis-
tening for cues, because you’re meant to tack on the next section as closely as
possible. You can’t just sit around and wait, is the point; it’s very tense!
So that’s one kind of cueing, which is a sort of more generalized cueing. From
there I moved—a fairly logical step—to note-by-note cueing, or events one note
of which would become the cue for the other player. And then of course more
than two players, which complicated the situation. The final step was to allow
cueing that was in a way like the beginning: indeterminate insofar as, say, you
sustain a sound and you cut off with the next sound you hear, but you don’t
know when it’s going to come. That gets you into interesting situations, espe-
cially if you’re a wind player! You may get cut off practically before you get to
make your sound, or you may just sit on that sound. And occasionally you would
get into dilemmas: Say it’s a duet and each player is supposed to wait for a sound
to cut off the sound that he or she is playing, but they’re both playing! So you
just sit forever on that! But I made rules to deal with that situation.

Nevertheless, as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, mistakes can be part of the


piece as well. Did that idea arise because you found that mistakes were inev-
itable in playing these works and couldn’t be filtered out without changing
the nature of the music itself?

I think it came from a number of things. One was the Cageian notion that music
and sound, or music and noise, are not irreconcilable. When we were writing in
those days, even in a fully notated piece, there was a lot of silence. And inevitably
there’ll be sounds and interruptions in those silences. The feeling was that those
would in no way disturb the piece; on the contrary, they became part of the
piece. So things that would be regarded as mistakes in a conventional context,
became simply what happened and therefore became legitimate parts of what
was going on.
The other phenomenon is that you play and you make a mistake, right? Well,
you’ve made it! Unless you’re recording and can take it out, you’ve made it. And
therefore it authentically exists; it’s there. The question then is one of attitude.
Do you say, “Oh, this is a terrible performance because this mistake was made,”
or is the character of the music such that it can accommodate things that were
not originally intended? And that was the view we took, that the mistake was like
a noise, something that simply came from somewhere else but was part of the
situation. And the music was such that it accommodated that. You can have a
very tight, closed musical world where obviously mistakes will damage what’s
going on. But here, the music was not like that. Quite the contrary, it was meant
to be comfortable in whatever environment you put it—which included that of
making mistakes.
150 occasional pieces

There’s a familiar dilemma with all of that music: this feeling that performers
somehow would get the idea that they could do anything, basically. And then
you would get terrible performances, traceable to a very simple cause that was
that the performers were not doing what the instructions of the piece required.
In spite of all the openness, each of these pieces had certain precise, minimal
requirements. And they were designed—if they were any good—to function
under those minimal conditions. And when something sounded funny, it was
usually because somebody either misunderstood or deliberately ignored some
condition of the piece.

A lot of your scores are available to untrained performers as well as to pro-


fessional musicians. Over the years, have you been better served by one kind
of player over the other?

No, I don’t think so. I like to operate on a number of fronts. I don’t function
very theoretically; I respond pragmatically to situations. And that notion of
writing for nonmusicians and/or amateurs originated when I was in England
for a year and was asked to go around speaking about my music. In those years
the places that were really interested were the art schools, so the audience was
basically not musicians; I mean, most of those guys played guitars or some-
thing, but this was not a sophisticated musical audience. And I found that it
was all very well to talk about music and play a little bit, play tapes or some-
thing, but I really got bored with doing that. These were basically creative, in-
teresting people, and they would obviously learn a lot more and have a better
time if they got to do some of the music. So I made music to accommodate
that situation, and that’s what got me started. And I liked the results a lot. The
next step was to work with students. When I started teaching music, I did a
course that was essentially a workshop in experimental music. I allowed any-
body in who seriously wanted to do something musical, whether or not they’d
had previous training. To a certain extent that fits my own situation composi-
tionally in that I too am a complete amateur, am self-taught, and so I have a
certain faith in that process. The other notion is that music is nice that way.
Anybody can make music. Kids do it; children do all kinds of amazing things
and somehow they lose that. There’s this sort of mystique that’s put around it.
Now sure, there are very specialized kinds of music for which you have to go to
conservatory for umpteen years and so forth. But we all have voices and can
sing, we all can beat out a rhythm of some sort. So between the two of those,
you’ve got quite a lot to work with. And after that you can make modest instru-
ments and so on and so forth. And now, once you get into electronic resources,
it’s amazing what you can do with very little musical training. So that was also
in the background, I think.
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 151

In fact, you can usually expect a better performance from a nonprofessional


who has a serious attitude toward the score, as opposed to musicians who
have a vested interest in their training and techniques.

Exactly. Interest, devotion, willingness—that’s the other nice thing about non-
professionals: They don’t have this vested interest. You give them a violin and
they’ll bow with the wood part or they’ll pluck it on the wrong side of the bridge.
They’ll just try to get the sounds that they think they can get out of this object,
instead of worrying about the regular ways they’re supposed to do it.

You’ve commented regarding For 1, 2 or 3 People that you wanted “to make
a lively situation for the performers.” Had the whole issue of performers
become more important to you as a composer around that time?

Yeah, I was writing for performers and myself. The kind of music we were making
clearly was not popular in any sense whatsoever. There wasn’t much point in
worrying about the whole question of the audience. Especially in the beginning,
because even here in New York with sophisticated audiences, the concerts were
invariably scandals of one kind or another. Most people hated them. Nowadays,
it’s really hard to think of John Cage being regarded as a total off-the-wall kook.
He’d been around and he had friends and so forth, but most people just didn’t
know what to make of this stuff, or hated it. So the feeling at concerts was gener-
ally very mixed—at best. And then when I set out for the hinterlands of Harvard
Universityâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›! Then I really thought, this is just crazy, and even had a slight chip
on my shoulder about audiences. I just decided never mind, I’m just going to do
what I want to do, and let the chips fall where they may and not think about audi-
ences. And that left me with the performers, which seemed to me much more
interesting and important. We’ve still got this historical division, but it seems to
me that there should be a much closer connection between performing and
composing. As it happens, I myself am not enough of a performer to realize that,
and I miss it very much.

Yet you’ve played all your life.

I have, and I like to play a lot—some of the amateur music is for me, so I
can play too.
The other thing that seems essential to me in composing is that you do some-
thing that performers can get into; maybe they won’t enjoy it initially, but that
there’s something in it for them and you just don’t, as it were, use them. There’s a
lot of contemporary music of the fifties and sixties—and still, no doubt—where
the performer is regarded as essentially some kind of reproducing machine for
152 occasional pieces

these elaborate scores. And that seemed to me really terrible; that sort of alienat-
ing of the performer seemed to me just about the worst thing you could do.
That was another reason I thought directly of the performers and what they
were doing.

Regarding For 1, 2 or 3 People, you’ve said, the “music is drawn from the
interaction of people playing it.” Yet both recordings of the piece seem to
�deviate from that principle. The performance by David Tudor superimposes
two tracks where he plays the keyboard and the interior of the organ. Had he
recorded two perfectly good, solo versions of the score, or was each track
made with an ear toward combining them into a two-person version?

I wasn’t there when he made the recording, and I never talked to him about it, so
I know just what’s on the record sleeve. But from other things that I know about
David—he knew the piece well and had played it with other people—my guess
is that he did two solo versions with the image in mind of the other version. But
not literally—I don’t see how he could do it technically.

He wouldn’t have been listening to a playback of, say, his keyboard version
while he was playing inside the organ.

I don’t think so. I would be surprised if he did that. But that’s a guess. I’ll have to
ask him—if he remembers.

However he did it, he can’t be surprised hearing what he’d already played.

Exactly. The one-person version of the score is a different piece, essentially.


There are a few points in that piece, whether it’s one, two or three people, where
you have to coordinate with sounds not your own, sounds in the environment.
That’s kind of external coordination for a solo performer.
The whole notion of cueing is obviously a dilemma when you’re writing solo
pieces. I addressed it once. I wrote a piano piece called For Pianist, in which I
tried to work out situations that would produce cues that were not perfectly con-
trollable by the player. What I did was set up situations in which the pianist was
asked to do something that could not be totally predictable. For instance, “play
as softly as possible”: You either play not as softly as possible, you play as softly
as possible, or you get no sound at all. Those are three possibilities, and depend-
ing on which one results, it cues a different line in the piece and takes you in a
different direction. Or you’d make a very wide leap as fast as possible: You’d
either hit the top note or miss it too high or miss it too low—three possibilities
result. I generated a bunch of things like that.
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 153

One more thing about David Tudor’s recording, which I think was his view
and which I agree with, is that recording is simply a different medium from live
performance, and you make the most of it. I think that’s what probably was
going on then.

The other recording is by the Percussion Group Cincinnati, and in their notes
they remark that their realization is “relatively fixedâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›though no two per-
formances by us are quite the same, they are now quite similar.” Is this idea
of creating a performing version of the score really in the spirit of the music?

Not entirely, no. But it’s a beautiful performance, very dedicated. I think people
use that material in a way that suits them. And that particular group used to work
the way string quartets work, and rehearse every day. And it’s hard to reconcile
that with at least the initial idea of a piece like For 1, 2 or 3 People.
The other extreme with that piece, if you’re working with people who are
experienced with it, is essentially to do a reading. In that piece, the only thing
you have to agree about is the distribution of the material on a given page:
Player one will cover this amount of it; player two, that amount; player three,
that amount. You can do that by mail, everybody then looks at their stuff and
works on it, and you might do a run-through before a performance, or if you’re
feeling really good about it, just do it with no rehearsals. That’s possible if the
people doing it have done that before and are familiar with the cueing—you
have to know what to do when there’s no one, or when you’re not getting one if
you’re expecting one, and so forth. But once you’ve done that a few times, you
can just go ahead and do it.
That’s one end of the spectrum. The other end is to work on it over and over
again, which as I say seems to be the ethos of this particular group, and come out
with a version that you get to know and which you’re comfortable with. And
which inevitably will have little variation—that’s partly inherent in the way you
produce sounds with percussion, especially sustained sounds. That’s the route
that they took and I think that’s fine if that’s what they want to do. Especially if
you’re recording, because a lot of this music is not suitable for recording.
Recordings are a documentation of a performance. Given the kind of uptight-
ness people have about recording, where you’re laying this stuff down forever,
I can understand why one would like to work up a version that you feel is going
to be okay and where you won’t screw up.

Are you also describing somewhat the recording of Burdocks?

Actually, that was looser—there I was working with people that I’d been work-
ing with for years. But even there, we did a lot of takes and edited them.
154 occasional pieces

That’s not a single performance on the record?

No. I think we did five sections of it, and some of them I think we just did straight
through, or shortened some. But it’s not edited in the sense of taking out two
seconds and putting in something else. We laid down a lot of material, and then
made a selection to fill twenty minutes for one side of the record.

If you as a composer go to all the trouble of removing your taste and memory
from the music, and the performer comes along and puts his or her own taste
and memory into the music, has the point of the score been lost?

No—it depends. For 1, 2 or 3 People is pretty abstract, so it’s very difficult to put
your tastes into it! It’s true, you could do it on instruments the sounds of which
don’t really move me very much. Yet one of the most essential conditions of that
piece is that you have to change the colors of the sounds all the time. So even if
you’re using sounds that I would really dislike, the fact is you have to do some-
thing with them. Invariably, you’re required to do peculiar or unconventional
things, and you’re more worried about the task at hand than the actual sound in
some aesthetic or emotional or symbolic sense. So the music will come out as I
intended. Now there have been some performances that I preferred to others,
obviously. Because sound is very important to me, the sonorities and noise they
make. And yet hearing people perform tasks that are somewhat unusual in a mu-
sical situation is really what it’s about, and that’s going to happen if they perform
the piece as it’s supposed to be performed. So in that sense, the question of my
taste or their taste doesn’t come into it, really.

Morton Feldman compared his graph scores to “a kind of roving camera that
caught up very familiar images, like a historical mirror.” By using traditional
notation, he got the musicians to play what he wanted to hear, rather than
what they’d remembered hearing elsewhere. Have you felt a similar limita-
tion using graphic notation?

No, I haven’t really. With the Feldman graph scores, what he left open were the
pitches: He’d have high, middle, low, and that’s it. It was open to a kind of dan-
gerous extent, because once you leave pitch choices open, especially with certain
continuities there, people can stick a tune in—nothing says they can’t. The other
issue, which is a deeper one, is the one of the performer’s intent in playing the
music. If they want to play the music and mess it up—you can do that to any
piece of music: You can do that to Mozart. In Feldman’s case, the notorious ex-
ample was a piece for orchestra, where one section of the orchestra just decided
to pick out the pitches of some tune. (I’ve forgotten what the tune was—“Yankee
Doodle” or something.) Well, that takes a deliberate effort of sabotage. What we
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 155

said at the time was that we assumed, as everybody has a fair right to assume, a
measure of good will on the part of the performers, and that they will not delib-
erately set out to sabotage a piece. But on the other hand, I also thought quite
clearly in terms of making a piece so to speak sabotage-proof. I would try to im-
agine the worst-case scenarios. Given these freedoms, what could somebody do
from an aesthetic point of view totally different from mine? And I would try that.
And if it still worked, then okay. Which isn’t to say that, if somebody really
wanted to, they couldn’t circumvent it. But that’s obviously not the point.

So you haven’t suffered much at the hands of performers.

I don’t think so, no. The abuses have been mostly careless and sloppy perfor-
mances—this thing we were talking about earlier, where people assume that, be-
cause certain freedoms exist, that others automatically exist, and therefore they
simply don’t pay attention to anything. The other thing that happens is that people
assume they can put the pieces together very quickly, which is again a very danger-
ous assumption—especially with the cueing pieces, because that takes quite a
while to get used to and is not at all easy. I’ve had some disastrous occasions where
people thought they could basically read it onstage. I said earlier that some of us
could do that—I’ve done it once with David Tudor and John Cage, for instance—
but we knew exactly what was going on. But for people who’ve never tried that,
it’s hopeless. Things like that have happened, and they just couldn’t do it.
In connection with Feldman and Burdocks: There are some areas in Burdocks
that are very open, and there was a performance of Burdocks that Feldman at-
tended—I wasn’t there, as it happened. It was by that English group, the Scratch
Orchestra, and somebody started to play a folk song. And Feldman I think even
got up during the performance and said, “That’s not Christian Wolff ’s music!”
This was reported to me later, and I thought about it and discovered where that
would have been possible. It wasn’t recorded, so I haven’t heard it and can’t tell
you, but I suspect that it’s perfectly okay; especially given the nature of that par-
ticular group, that it would have been very beautiful. And Burdocks is in fact a
much more varied piece than For 1, 2 or 3 People, which is very austere. Burdocks
has a tune in it, which I wrote myself! So if somebody else wants to put a tune in
it, that’s not going to wreck the mold of the piece.

I read that Burdocks was performed by some forty musicians. Is that still the
largest ensemble ever to play your music?

I think so. I have a couple of orchestra pieces that have been performed.

Being played by a symphony orchestra is where you’d run into the biggest
risk of sabotage.
156 occasional pieces

Right. But those scores are actually conventionally notated. There’s a piece called
Changing the System that allows multiples of four, and I think has been done by
as many as twelve multiples of four, which would be forty-eight people. It’s all
done with subgroups of quartets, and Bill Brooks once told me that he organized
a performance in San Diego with—I don’t know how many, but at least a dozen
quartets. And I’ve been involved with performances of that piece by six or seven
quartets. I like those performances a lot—they’re really fun! I like two things,
clarity and complexity, which are almost mutually exclusive. And those pieces
address the possibility of having a lot of material going on. And yet I want it to be
going on in such a way that you can still see through the piece, you can still hear
what’s going on.

Did your Electric Spring scores come out of your playing the electric guitar,
or did they lead you to take up that instrument?

I was surrounded by people like Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and Alvin
Lucier, all of whom were working with electricity in some form. And I thought,
they’re doing it and that’s okay, so I don’t have to worry about it; but on the other
hand, I was obviously interested. And my modest way of trying to get connected
was to go out and buy an electric guitar and play with it. Because I liked the
sounds, and at that time I also was beginning to get interested in popular music.
So it was for all those reasons, and that’s how it happened that I made those
pieces. In fact, I also needed a bass and so I built one: a kind of very crude elec-
tric bass from a board, which we used in the first performances of those pieces.

I understand that Feldman wrote an electric guitar piece for you to play.

Yes, that’s a very sad story—because it doesn’t exist anymore. The trouble with
guitars is that they get stolen, right? What happened was that I had this guitar
and I wanted something that I could play on it. I thought it seemed like an instru-
ment he might be interested in—you could play these very delicate, soft sounds,
and I had a vibrato bar, so you could bend the pitches a little bit—and I said,
“Morty, would you be interested?” And he said, “Well, bring it over, let’s see.” So
I came over with my little amp and guitar, and I plugged the thing in and played
a few things on it. And he said okay and sat down at the piano and played this
chord. And he said, “Can you do that?” And by using both hands on the finger-
board and so forth, I could do it. So okay, good, and he wrote it down. Then he
played another chord: “Can you do that?” And that one I couldn’t do. All right,
so he tried revoicing one of the pitches, and it was okay. And we spent about an
hour, an hour and a half, and he made the piece right on the spot, and then gave
me the manuscript. And that was it, that was the only copy. And I played it a few
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 157

times. It was a very beautiful piece—it was Feldman and he writes beautiful
pieces. And then I came down to New York on my way to somewhere else; I had
driven down and had the guitar in the car with a couple of other instruments. I
parked for ten minutes, just to drop in quickly on somebody, and came back and
the car was cleaned out. The music I’d kept inside the guitar case—that was the
safest place, I thought. And that was it. Feldman’s lost guitar piece.

Commentators have likened your scores of the sixties to games. Are you com-
fortable with that comparison? Do you see yourself as having constructed
games for people to play?

No, I don’t—it’s music. Clearly that’s a helpful analogy, because there are rules.
I used to use it in trying to explain how the music worked: that you had certain
fixed rules and that the game had a very distinctive character because of the re-
strictive moves and the results of those moves, but that each game would be
different. And that’s a useful way of describing the music. The whole notion that
a piece of music is supposed to have a fixed identity and so forth, and what is
that, baffles people; most professional musicians think of a piece as a piece, and
to have a piece that changes character all the time is baffling. So that analogy
helped. I can usually tell what piece it is. Not always—something like For 1, 2 or
3 People you can do it in so many different ways—but after a while, I sort of
get the idea and figure out which piece it is. But obviously people who are not
familiar with the music don’t understand that and can’t hear it. So the game
analogy is helpful. But it’s not really a game so much, in the way, say, John Zorn
uses that idea. There are some connections, the cueing and so forth, but in his
case, I think he really has a clear image of a board game or a video game or a
sports event.

Do you have any personal interest in sports or games?

Sports, yes. Growing up in New York, I saw a lot of baseball and played some
basketball as a kid. I still follow those things and I like them, but they don’t con-
nect much to music.
One physical thing that does connect is dance. Merce Cunningham’s dancing
has had a tremendous effect on my music, I think. It’s hard to describe specifi-
cally in detail, but just the way he structures the pieces, the combination of
movements—it’s the formal character of the dances, the combination of abstrac-
tion with very powerful evocative possibilities.

You mentioned John Zorn before—he and Elliott Sharp and other free
�improvisers performed at a retrospective of your music in New York. That
158 occasional pieces

concert demonstrated just how congenial their music is to your own, and
I  wondered if you had been aware much of their work in the seventies
and eighties?

I was aware but only at a distance. That’s the problem with not living in the city
and only coming down occasionally. I had missed most of that music—I just
hadn’t heard it. I’d heard about it; I mean, I’d read The Village Voice and stuff.

Which would give only a distorted view of it anyway.

Well, very sketchy. I know enough to take that with a grain of salt. I also had a
clear sense that, rather like much of the earlier music of the sixties, it doesn’t
record well, that the recording gives you a very different impression from a
live performance. So I was hoping someday to catch up with it, and I was very
pleased with that concert because it was my chance to catch up with the music
of John Zorn and Elliott Sharp and so forth—as filtered through my work, but
that’s okay too.

When did you first realize you could compose a score without regard to in-
strumentation?

I can’t remember exactly which is the first piece that does that. A very early piece,
even before I met Cage, I did for voice and percussion. The voice part was writ-
ten on a single line, not on a stave and not pitched; only relative high and low
was written. The percussion was basically just the rhythms; I think I may have
specified the materials, but nothing beyond that. Now, percussion writing is
almost always like that, unless you know the percussionist and his equipment.
Otherwise, you’re dealing in a variable situation where you have to go with what
you’re going to get. And the voice seems to me also like that, obviously, if you
don’t specify soprano, alto, whatever. And that’s what I had in mind with this
piece, that any voice could sing it, and therefore only relative pitches were fixed.
That’s a very early stage, but it seems to me both voice and percussion have that
quality. Percussion is already an instrumentation, and yet the possibilities are
very extensive. The same with the voice, even when it’s pitched because there the
individual character of the singer is so powerful; the person is the instrument,
and each person is different, so each instrument is different.
Other than that one, I don’t think I actually wrote such a piece until probably
the early sixties. Partly it was a practical consideration: I might not have known
in this particular case who would be available to play, or I would want to make
something that could be used on other occasions when I didn’t have a recorder,
a bass trombone, and a clarinet. You know, you can write just so many of those
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 159

pieces; they’re one-off pieces and that’s it. So the idea of making something
useful and practical I think was probably as much behind that as anything else.
Then of course once you get into it, you realize the very specific kinds of compo-
sitional and technical issues that arise, apart from just making it available to a lot
of different players.

Did you find that those pieces would be played more often because of that
openness, or did they fall into pretty much the same patterns of performance
as your other works?

For 1, 2 or 3 People has gotten a lot of mileage; Edges is another one. There I think
it’s also the fact that they can be done by different levels of performers, profes-
sional and nonprofessional. The other piece that I think has been played a lot is
a piece called Stones. I had this little set of prose pieces, which was my first deal-
ing with this whole non-professional-performer situation. And those have gotten
a lot of play.

Looking back twenty years later, does it still seem to you that there was break
in your music from the so-called abstract pieces, Burdocks or Lines, to the
so-called political pieces such as Accompaniments?

In some sense, sure. It certainly felt like a big break at the time. But it’s like Cage’s
pre-chance music and post-chance music: Clearly there’s a sharp break, and yet in
certain ways you can see that they’re all by Cage. The same thing I think applies to
my work. And in fact, recently I’ve come back to using some of the techniques of
the earlier period, but in contexts that are quite different. But at the time it felt like
a big break, especially that piano piece Accompaniments. Mostly because, at the
very simple level, there are so many notes in that piece; there are more notes in
that piece, I sometimes feel, than there are in all the previous music I’d written.
Because most of my music is this very sparse, Webernesque kind of texture, and
then suddenly there’s this piece that has a thousand chords in the first five minutes!

Nevertheless, every note in each chord doesn’t have to be played.

Exactly, there are still a number of indeterminate features. And even the element
of professional/nonprofessional is built into that piece, because obviously the
pianist has to be good (it was written for Frederic Rzewski), but he has to use his
voice—and very few pianists are accomplished singers, so they just have to do
the best they can with the voice—and play percussion with their feet. Both ele-
ments are there, and the pianist is somehow forced to function also as a non-
professional.
160 occasional pieces

Had you felt the need for a break from what you’d been doing up to then?

Yeah, I really felt I’d done everything I’d wanted to do with those techniques.
I didn’t want to be repeating them.

That’s what I wanted to know, if Burdocks and Lines seemed to you to have
taken that music as far as you could.

Definitely, yeah. Burdocks is already a transitional piece; free as parts of it are, it


has certain fixed forms. There’s one part where the pitches are free, but clearly
you have three-voice chorales! And I’ve done a lot of chorales since, in various
forms in various pieces, but that was the first one. And then the tune with accom-
paniment; and then the possibility of looping things, diatonic patterns that can
occur over and over again—there was nothing remotely like that in my earlier
work; there aren’t even opportunities for doing that in my earlier work. So to
that extent, it was already moving into a different climate. But generally, it was a
question of moving out of what I began to feel was a highly specialized area that
I’d felt I’d done. The other thing, as you know, was that I got interested in politics,
and that earlier music just seemed to have nothing to do with any political issue;
it really seemed totally remote.

The reason I spoke before about music being “so-called” abstract or political
is because the misunderstandings seem to set in so quickly with those terms.
I can’t imagine a piece of music not being political—if it exists in the society,
then it’s political.

Absolutely. I’m in complete agreement with that. And the funny thing is that in
the later sixties some people began writing about my earlier work, doing Marxist
interpretations of it and finding that it was in fact very political; because of this
interactive dimension, it was a mini-model of some kind of democratic/socialist
thing. Which certainly wasn’t in my head when I wrote it, but I was delighted—
that was fine with me.
There’s the politics of the existence of the piece (even its technical nature), all
of which is very interesting. But then there’s the other question—now we get
back to the audience, which I sort of deliberately shut out for all those years. If
there’s some political content in the piece, then you have to think about who’s it
for, and under what circumstances is it going to be communicated. And then the
musical part of that becomes more important. In those years, I began to spend
time with real political people who had no musical interests at all. You go to a
meeting or a demonstration or whatever, you’re not going to play For 1, 2 or 3
People. However politically correct you might by some fancy analysis regard that
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 161

piece, it’s just not going to wash. You’re going to have to do a song, you’re going
to have to do a piano piece with a certain resonance.
So that’s entered into my thinking too. But in a modified way. Obviously, I’m
not a writer of popular songs—I just don’t have it for that, I don’t know how to
do that. And the solution that, say, people like Rzewski and Cardew came up
with at first, which was to write a kind of music very closely aligned to late nine-
teenth-century romantic music, on the notion that this is something that people
could relate to easily, that never moved me too much either. So I was left in a kind
of no-man’s land.

After Cardew became a political activist—about a year before you did, in


1971—he was dismissive of his own and others’ avant-garde compositions.
Was he throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or were there inherent
contradictions between political content and experimental music that he
couldn’t resolve—or that cannot be resolved?

It’s so complicatedâ•›.â•›.â•›.

There’s also the tendency, when joining up with something new, to feel a need
to recant one’s earlier allegiances.

I agree with that. I didn’t have that in me, but I think Cardew did. He was deeply
involved with both Stockhausen and Cage, and he really felt that he had to kick
those traces, and he did—quite explicitly with those famous broadcasts he wrote
for the BBC: There was one essay about “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism,” and
there was one about Cage. And I think it was valuable to do that. It gave us all
stuff to think about; very serious things to think about. We might or might not
have agreed with either the tactics or the tone, but the fact is Cardew was a very
intelligent and very serious person, so this was something you had to come to
terms with. And I think it was good he did it. But I have a much more, I guess,
accommodating nature. I didn’t feel the need to do that. So I didn’t.
Now, with the larger question you’re asking, I usually fall back on the position
of context. If you think about, say, the early years of the Russian Revolution, it
was a time of tremendous flowering precisely in the experimental arts. Now,
Lenin notoriously didn’t know what to make of that stuff and was kind of embar-
rassed by it; he really liked nineteenth-century romantic music, which he also
realized was bourgeois music and not politically the right thing. So the problem
exists in many forms, and that’s one of them. In that case, you have a historical
context where you have revolution in politics and you have revolution in the
arts, and nothing could seem more reasonable and right and proper. Once the
avant-garde evolves and becomes the preserve of rather specialized interests, is
162 occasional pieces

involved with heavy subsidy by AT&T and all these other things that we’re
very familiar with, then it becomes a less obvious representation of politically
�interesting positions, and you have to rethink all of that.
I’ve been talking in large terms of historical context. More particularly, you
would think about an audience situation. And there are all kinds of examples
that come to mind. There was an organization in New York, I think in the early
seventies, called the Musicians’ Action Collective. They did something I thought
was very interesting, although I never got to hear any of their concerts. It was a
group of musicians who were politically interested, but they came from a whole
range of backgrounds: There would be people who played in the Philharmonic,
there would be avant-garde composers, there would be folk musicians, there
would be jazz people—practically anything you could think of. And they de-
cided, okay, we’ll each do our thing, but we will do it in a context that makes
some kind of political statement and is in aid of some particular cause. They set
all these rules for themselves. And each concert was devoted to some issue:
It might be the farm workers, it might be whatever. And they would try to get
music that was somehow related to the issue, but not necessarily. And you’d have
a program consisting of a Mozart woodwind quintet—the guys from the PhilÂ�
harmonic would do that; Rzewski might have some piece written for the occa-
sion; Mike Glick or some political folk singer would also have something more
or less related, and maybe a few other things as well; some jazz combo would
play—jazz is, in some way, deeply political, and yet at the same time has never
done much with the verbal aspects of the politics. So you’d have this whole range
of stuff, and you’d have an audience that was really interesting: People would go
either to hear their favorite group, and have no interest in the politics; or they’d
go because the issue was important to them. You’d get this very variegated group,
which was in some sense unified by the issues, and the people who, say, were
really interested in the jazz group would also hear the Mozart. My view about
that is that the Mozart would become a political piece in that context. That
Â�illustrates this whole issue of context as clearly as I can. And that’s the way one
has to deal with the whole question: Name the concert, name the occasion and
who playedâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›and even the results. Again, Cardew was very good about this.
He’d say, it’s all very well to have good intentions, but if they don’t work, you’ve
missed it; you haven’t got it. So he’d really monitor what was happening, which
is good; I think it’s a very sensible thing to do. It’s hard to translate that back to
the process of composing—I find it really impossible to compose and think,
well, is this the right thing to do politically, write my E♭ or C♯? Notes are notes.

Do you ever feel that you’re being drawn into letting nonmusical distinctions
make musical decisions, or that you have to start thinking not as a composer
while you’re composing?
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 163

A composer’s material can be very various. Some composers work from works of
art; some work from texts, which are not necessarily set. But the answer is yes; that
is to say, I use material that is not necessarily musical. But I don’t think that’s that odd.

Have you suffered any adverse repercussions from writing music with an
overtly political content? Have you been harassed by the government?

No, I don’t think so. Not that I know of.

Have you ever demanded the file on you from the FBI under the Freedom of
Information Act?

No.

I bet they’ve got one on you.

Maybe—I don’t know. It would be nice if they did! Let’s be realistic here: My
work is not exactly widely known in the world, so I think that people out there
feeling it as a great big threat seems somewhat unlikely. I’ve never had much luck
in applying for grants and things, and there was a time when I possibly might
have been a little bit too hardnosed in my grant application and rubbed some
people the wrong way. I know that the feeling exists—mostly within our own
musical world; it’s not so much in the big world. The person I know best for this
is Frederic Rzewski who’s far more visible than I am, partly through his perform-
ing. I know he’s had a lot of trouble, especially in this country, getting jobs and
perhaps even gigs in some cases because of his politics. And that’s not surprising.
So it certainly happens. But I have not directly noticed it myself.

Was there a loss of support among formerly friendly composers who’d felt
you’d abandoned or betrayed them?

There was bafflement, certainly. Including my close friends, John Cage and Morton
Feldman. I think mostly, though, they stood back and wanted to see what would
happen next, so to speak. But there was a difficult time, and it was exacerbated by
this moment when Cardew took his stand. He was a good friend of mine—I had
friends on both sides of something of a divide, and it was very difficult because I
stuck by Cardew and defended him. But that sort of worked itself out pretty quickly.

When you composed Accompaniments, in which you set a text about revolu-
tionary China, did you ever wonder what would have happened to a Chinese
composer at that time had he or she written such a score?
164 occasional pieces

I guess not specifically. Obviously, I was operating out of a very privileged and
open situation. I was interested at the time that there was a lot of talk about
music during the Cultural Revolution, with very interesting attacks on the clas-
sical composers. Beethoven and Schubert were specifically singled out as not to
be used and were forbidden, which seemed to me really strange, but interesting
as an idea. I certainly had no notions that this music would ever be played in
China, so to that extent I didn’t engage with that idea. Now, the politics of
Accompaniments has been totally discredited; to that extent, the piece is finished
and I should withdraw it. The things that were actually going on in those years
we’re finally finding out about, and they were horrendous. I think there are cer-
tain principles I found in the text that I used, which I still believe in, so that part
is okay; I will defend the piece to that extent. The interesting thing about politi-
cal music is that its political character comes and goes. Operas that were initially
extremely political, like The Marriage of Figaro or any number of Verdi operas,
now are just high-art entertainment. So things change, and that’s interesting.
Accompaniments was a problematical piece, for all my good intentions, and it
raised these issues for me very clearly. I would play it for people who were politi-
cally interested but not musically tuned in, and they wondered whether I wasn’t
making fun of the text by setting it that way. I mean, I thought I was making tre-
mendous strides forward in my music, and to them it was just basically weird and
therefore a kind of undermining of the text. It was very unsettling. And Cardew
had the piece played. (He documented this in his book.) To be sure, he did a
rather weird version: He set it to instruments so that the piece probably wasn’t
much like what I had in mind. But anyway he did it, and there were very mixed
results connected with that, and he wrote a quite severe criticism of it as a result.

Arguing that one factor against the piece was that it could be done in a way
that could permit misinterpretation?

Yeah.

Yet in the piece you went out of your way to let the text stand on its own.

Exactly—that is specifically required in the instructions, that you do that. In pre-


vious uses of texts, I might essentially have said, use this as sound material. But
here I said, in spite of the repetitive patterns and loops, the general tenor of the
text should emerge in the course of a performance. So performance is critical—
not just with ordinary performance, but with political performance—and that’s
another issue. The quality of the performance and the dedication of the per-
former can make a world of difference. And again, that’s the Mozart thing: If you
play that Mozart badly in that political context, it will have a poor effect; if you
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 165

play it exquisitely and if people see that there is a devotion there and a skill, they
may be very moved by that, and feel that this has been done especially for them
in some way. Rzewski has done concerts for labor union organizations, and he’ll
play very demanding music, and they will be somewhat baffled by all this. And
yet, at the same time, the fact that he’s doing it, and the fact that he’s doing it so
well and so seriously, has an impact and makes an impression.
Initially, I made the decision to associate a text with everything I was doing,
and then eventually I slacked off from that. That was a rather crude decision,
but I thought, all right, I’ll do that and see what happens. And so you got
Accompaniments and Changing the System and Wobbly Music—and that’s almost
it. I have a lot of problems working with texts. It’s partly because I work with
texts professionally, and so have a special feeling about them. The really best
texts I think are best left as texts and not mucked up with music. So that’s one
problem, and the other is that I really like a text to be just right, and it’s hard to
find ones that work well.
But it’s survived in the titles, you might say. I do use titles a lot now, which are
evocative of either a song that is used though not actually sung inside a piece, or
of somebody’s name—I’ve got as whole series of name pieces: Those are more
recent and are tributes to and evocations of people.

Opera would seem to be ideal for communicating political content in a pow-


erful way. Have you been attracted to that?

I think if the opportunity arose I would certainly take it. And I have in the back
of my mind thought about what kinds of material to use. But it’s the kind of thing
that I wouldn’t just jump into. It’s like orchestra music, of which I have very little:
There’s just such an investment involved that to do it without some prospects of
performance, let alone money.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›Yet on the other hand, I have a certain amount
of faith. It’s true that, at the moment, over the last years there’s enough interest
among performers in my works so that I’m always writing—usually for a com-
mission or for somebody who has asked for a piece (and they may or may not
have the money to pay for it). But occasionally I write pieces because I want to
write them and don’t worry about it. In fact, my first orchestra piece was like
that: I finally thought, hey, here I am, fifty or whatever, and I’ve never written for
orchestra, so let’s try it. And I really had fun doing it. And I just set it aside, and
three years later somebody called and said, “Christian, do you have an orchestra
piece?” But that was a five-minute piece and the investment was modest—I
didn’t do the parts or anything until the time came. But opera is in the back of my
mind as a possibility. Again, the opera houses, you have to pay sixty or seventy
dollars to get in, so you’re restricting your audiences; it’s a rather specialized sit-
uation. But there are other situations: chamber operas, street operas, for instance.
166 occasional pieces

Your music has been criticized for not having swayed the bourgeoisie in any
perceivable direction. Is that a fair criticism? Do you feel you’ve failed as a
composer if you haven’t swayed the bourgeoisie?

No, not really. And what does that mean, to sway them? This is so generalized
and abstract a term.
I think everybody does what they can, right? I’m not President of the United
States, I’m not even a big politico or a little politico. I’m just a composer working
in very restricted circles. And I can do several things. If I felt I could do it, and felt
strongly enough about something, then I should go out there and agitate or run
for office or something like that. But the fact is, I’m a composer—among other
things—and I don’t think I have the skills and the gifts. My energies I think are
best applied to what I can do. And then the political question becomes one of
doing what I do with as much awareness of the possible political implications of
it, and with every effort to make something of it politically—let’s put it that way—
in a general sense. And it has to more or less take place within the contexts in
which I can operate. Which are partly academic, at school—I think I do more
political work as a teacher of whatever it is I’m teaching. And it’s not that I read
sermons; you do it in very small and modest ways.
The same goes for the music. I do certain things that in some sense are crude—
one way to try to convey something political is with a text. That’s the guaranteed
way, theoretically; actually, it’s not at all guaranteed. I learned that too the hard
way. But at least it’s a start, because people will say, what do you mean? or what
does this title mean? or where is that text from? You create an occasion in which
political questions can be raised, or a little bit of modest education can take place.
I wrote a piece called Wobbly Music and “Wobbly” refers to the Wobblies, a politi-
cal movement at the turn of the century, of which many people—including myself,
once—are quite unaware, and yet it’s probably the largest-scale radical movement
this country has ever experienced. And I thought it’s time for people to be re-
minded of that, that we have in our history the possibility of doing that—and why
it was destroyed and in what ways and what it accomplished before that and so
forth. So to make a piece about the Wobblies becomes also—this is where the
teaching comes in again—a kind of teaching exercise. Teaching is largely persua-
sion in uncoercive ways; in ways that open up people rather than shut them down.

The idea of your having to sway the bourgeoisie seems to imply that if people
don’t storm out of your concert and burn down an Army recruiting station,
then somehow you’ve failed.

Exactly. And I don’t know of any political music that does that. Most political
music, paradoxically enough, is for the converted; it’s an instrument of cohesion
Inter v iew w ith Col e Gag ne ( 1992) 167

for a group that already knows what it wants and what it’s doing. There’s hardly
any that I know of which operates in this funny area that we’ve tried to get into,
which is to raise people’s awareness outside of the circle of those who basically
agree with you.

This interview took place in 1991 and was included in Cole Gagne’s book Soundpieces 2: Interviews
with American Composers, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
26

Interview with Markus Trunk (1992)

The following conversation took place on 26th April, 1992, without any in-
tention of publishing it. At the time, I was studying with Alvin Lucier at
Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and this interview formed
part of a project on musical analysis for one of the classes I had taken. While
I had been in the process of looking for an appropriate topic, Alvin had
handed me a tape recording of a recently premiered work by Christian Wolff.
This piece appeared to me to be a very suitable analytic object for several
reasons; it was brief and terse, its composer lived close by and was available
for consultation, and I also was interested in determining for myself what to
make of Christian’s recent output.
The work in question was Kegama, for clarinet/bass clarinet, violin,
cello, percussion, and piano. The score is dated 12.11.91 and bears the dedi-
cation “For Björn Nilsson & NY MUSIK / & for Alvin’s 60th,” which refers
to the artistic director of the concert series Ny Musik in Borås, Sweden, and
to Alvin Lucier’s sixtieth birthday on May 14th, 1991.
There were limits to the musical analysis given the circumstances of this
interview. To begin with, Christian Wolff had only the completed score, that
is, no sketches from the composition process, at his disposal. Additionally, the
conversation was held on the phone, which made the discussion of analytical
details rather time-consuming.

First, I would like to ask a few questions about your biography that have
not become clear to me. You were born in Nice?

Yes.

But not into a French family.

No, German.

169
170 occasional pieces

So did your parents emigrate to France?

Yes.

In 1933?

Yes, I thinkâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›’32 or ’33, I’m not sure.

Were they Jewish?

My father is half Jewish, yes. Not my mother.

Was that the reason?

That was certainly a strong reason, but the other reason wasâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›how could you
say—a couple of things: one is just being completely repelled by the political
situation and just wanting not to have anything to do with it, and the other one
was that my father was a publisher, and the majority of his authors were Jewish.
You know the whole notion of entartete Kunst, well, he was one of the great pro-
moters of the literary side of that, so even if he hadn’t had a Jewish connection,
he would have been somebody very much out of favor.

The books he had published were among those that got burned, I suppose.

Yes.

So did you speak German at home?

No, actually not, I spoke French. I didn’t learn German until I went to high school!
I mean, I could understand it, I sort of had to, because my parents spoke it most of
the time. But they raised me according to the country we were in, which was first
France, and then when we came over here, and I was still just seven—basically,
their notion was that I would belong to the country that we were living in. When I
graduated from college, I went to live with some relatives for a summer; I have
relatives in Bavaria, and at the time, nobody spoke English, so I really had to learn.

And later on you came back, as a soldier, as far as I know.

Yes.

Alvin Lucier told me that, and also that it was back then that he met you for
the first time, in Darmstadt, of all places. How did you end up in Germany?
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 171

Well, there used to be compulsory military service in this country, and I was in
the army between 1959 and 1961. It was unusual to be drafted then, because
there was nothing happening. I was in graduate school and ordinarily I would
have been excused, but I had sent in my forms, I think, a few days too late, and it
came up after all, and then I decided that if I did go, I would go in as a noncom-
batant. I was essentially a conscientious objector, but not to the extent of going
to jail or doing something else instead. The army had a special program where
you were not trained with weapons, you were just trained as a medic. Of the par-
ticular group I was in, one half went to Korea and the other half went to Germany,
and luckily I got sent to Germany.

Was it always clear to you that you didn’t want to become a so-called profes-
sional composer? It seems you were quite determined not to study composi-
tion, or music at all.

Well, I originally thought I would be a professional musician; I had the notion


of being a pianist, but then it became clear that I wasn’t nearly good enough.
As far as composing went, I just started it, without any kind of instruction, in
a very idiosyncratic way, although there was some imitation, obviously, of
other music. Then I went to Cage, and he liked that. I did sort of study for-
mally with him for quite a short time, about six weeks, at the end of which he
said, we really don’t need to go on in this formal way, you should just go ahead
and do what you are going to do and bring it to me and we can talk about it.
What we were doing was so different from anything that was happening in the
academic world, there didn’t seem to be any point.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›In the first place, I
wasn’t that interested, for example, in learning traditional counterpoint, be-
cause I had no intention of using it, and Cage did encourage me; he said the
point about studying other music theory, even though you weren’t going to
use it, was that it would teach you about discipline, about systems, and he
thought that I had figured that out for myself already and I didn’t need it,
rightly or wrongly.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›In retrospect, I have a more complicated view about it,
but at that time it seemed to make sense. And there I was, I was seventeen or
sixteen, and he thought I was okay as a composer, so I didn’t see any point in
doing that.
Now, the other thing was, that it was clear to me that it would be extremely
difficult to make a life out of being a professional composer. It’s very hard to im-
agine now because—this is in the early fifties—there was no support; for in-
stance in this country, there was no National Endowment for the Arts. There
were no grants, period! All there was was a Guggenheim, which you could get
once in your life. You either had to be independently wealthy or you had to do
something else, and something else could be, to do an academic program in music
and teach music, but that seemed to me so completely out of the question—you
172 occasional pieces

know, I would have to be teaching things that I really was not interested in and
did not really believe in, as far as its usefulness for composition goes. Fortunately,
I had strong other interests, I really was very interested in literature, and so I fell
into an academic life after all, but in another field. Mostly it just didn’t seem like
a realistic possibility to be a professional composer.

There weren’t as many faculty positions in composition around at that time.

There were extremely few, exactly. The composers I knew were living on the
edge. Cage was barely making it, he was essentially supported by his parents, and
still in a very marginal way because they didn’t have much money either. Feldman
worked in a clothing factory, in his father’s clothing store. Everybody did all
kinds of peculiar things; even Philip Glass began as a taxi driver and a plumber—
he has a license as a plumber! So that seemed to be the mode; to do something
else to support one’s composing habits, so to speak.

There were also people like Alvin, who actually did study composition.

Yes, he did a more conventional kind of thing, he did a regular music degree at
Yale, and then, what’s interesting about his career is that suddenly he did a com-
plete turnaround compositionally, basically from one day to the next: from
being a fairly standard graduate student composer type he turned into this other
thing. He did have the credentials to teach, so at Brandeis, he was director of the
chorus, which would be regarded as a relatively harmless activity, because the
other thing is that people like us were regarded as threatening, they didn’t want
us in the music schools, probably quite rightly, unless we could do something
that wasn’t seen as disturbing anything. So Alvin got to do the chorus, and the
understanding was, of course, that he would do just regular choral music rather
than anything unusual.
Then, the other thing that happened was the rise of the interest in electronic
music. That was perhaps one of the main factors in changing things, because
music departments felt they sort of should do this, and people ready and equipped
to do it tended to be the more advanced composers. So that was one way that got
them into the academic setting, and Alvin then also did that studio at Brandeis.
Now, Wesleyan University was sort of transformed by Cage who came there—
not to the music department, but they had an institute of some sort there. He was
invited to go there for a year and inevitably got involved with the people in the
music department. Though they themselves were quite conservative, they were
very delighted with him; he just completely changed their awareness of new
music. And then, when they felt they should get somebody who did new music
and would do the studio, they asked him for advice, and he recommended Alvin.
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 173

While you were pursuing your professional career, did you always consider
yourself as a composer?

Oh yes, it was clear, I was going to do it, no matter what.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›Sometimes it was


�
difficult, because I began as a full-time classics professor, and that’s very time-Â�
consuming. It was hard, there were times I couldn’t do music when I wanted to,
but—it worked out.

In order to move in a little closer on Kegama now—the pieces you have been
writing during the past few years are quite different from your earlier works,
which established you as a composer. Do the new pieces receive more perfor-
mances than the earlier ones?

I don’t really know—probably! But my sense now is that there is a revival of interest
in that earlier music. By the mid-seventies, that first phase of the avant-garde that
began in the fifties, both in Europe and in the States—it just went out of fashion,
and, I expect, my earlier pieces along with it. I myself am not particularly interested
in pushing them, because, you know, one likes to do what one has done most re-
cently. And the thing about the more recent pieces is that almost all of them are
written for particular people and for particular occasions, so they all get performed
almost immediately. But sometimes, because they are for rather unusual groupings,
or they are very difficult or something like that, they may not get played a whole lot
more. I don’t know, on balance my sense now is, it’s about even between the two.
But a lot of the music gets played in academic settings where I don’t get any report,
so I can’t tell, and the earlier work is more likely to be played in that sort of situation.

The earlier work?

Yes, because it’s easier to play, and it’s also pedagogically moreâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›more effective?
People can teach it more easily. There is more to be learned.

So the specific combination of instruments is usually determined by the play-


ers or ensembles who commission the pieces.

Right.

I was wondering how all these pieces came about that have, say, flute and
trombone and piano in them, all kinds of unusual combinations—

But new music ensembles are like that these days, they all have some slightly odd
combination of winds and strings and percussion.
174 occasional pieces

But don’t you also have a preference for these odd combinations?

Oh, I can take them or leave them. I am trying to think when I last actually de-
cided to write something for a combination without being askedâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›I can’t even
think of an example. It’s what’s there, and usually they are interesting, some of
them less so. My least favorite piece that I have had to write over the last couple
of years was a piece for flute and piano, that’s a combination that I just find im-
possible; that was hard work to do that! I would never choose to write a piece for
flute and piano.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The piano is the one I often have trouble with. It’s easier,
I find, to write without the piano, but most of these groups have piano in them,
so I write for the piano, too, and that’s okay.

Do you think that these recent pieces reach a different, or a larger audience
than the earlier pieces?

Well, it’s new music concerts, you know what they are like! It’s pretty much the
same, I think. It’s clearly not a large audience. One thing is, because I am off here
in Hanover, New Hampshire, I am often not there when my work is played, so I
don’t have a sense of how it’s received. I think the recent work is more accessible,
it certainly is; I find that there are people, who otherwise are not interested in
new music, who are relieved when they hear these pieces. Say, when they are
played here at Dartmouth College, for an audience, which is not particularly
tuned in to new music, the recent pieces go down quite well. On the other hand,
last year we did an early piece, For 1, 2 or 3 People and it was the hit of the pro-
gram! But it’s one that has a potential for theatric elements, and the version they
did involved lots of balloons, so it had a visual thing. The rest of the music seemed
rather grey and boring by comparison, because here was something funny and
amusing going on, and everybody liked that all of a sudden. It’s a question of
context, really.

But in general the recent pieces seem to be more accessible.

Yes, just on the face of it, they certainly are. The thing is that classical music as
a whole is not very accessible, not any more; if you think of this generation of
students, they almost can’t tell the difference between, let’s say, an avant-
garde piece of the fifties and a late Beethoven quartet. They can tell that the
one is sort of tonal and the other one isn’t, but that’s about as far as it goes. As
far as liking it or relating to it, it’s pretty much the same. So in some ways, the
experimental music of the sixties might seem more understandable than
some of the music that I write now, which is more like traditional Western
concert music.
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 175

You said in an interview, in regard to the political background of your work,


that music is usually not able to change people directly. Now, these recent
pieces often don’t have a text, and that you are using political song tunes is,
at least to me, not recognizable, probably because I don’t know the songs—

No, in fact, even if you knew them, sometimes they are barely recognizable.

Do you think these pieces still have a political effect? Would you say it’s polit-
ical music?

What is political music?â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›No, they are not. There is a political music that is
written for specific political circumstances; it can be instrumental, usually it’s
vocal, and it usually has a text that is very clear and plain. That’s your basic hard-
core political music, and everything else is a matter of degree. I guess most of
the stuff I have been writing recently has very little political character—cÂ� ertainly
not of that first kind. I have done some songs over the last five or six years that
used, in some cases, fairly strong texts. Those are arguably more political, but
for the rest, it’s more a question of association. If the music isn’t going to be totally
abstract, if it’s going to be connected to something, then I tend to connect it to
things that I value and find interesting, and in many cases, they tend to have a
political, let’s say, flavor to them, as opposed toâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›say, Stockhausen has all these
mystical associations, and that I don’t believe in, I wouldn’t choose to do that; I
prefer politics to religion or mysticism or whatever. So it’s more a question of
general orientation, which at some level has some effect. If the music world is
saturated by pseudo-mystical associations, that creates a certain climate that, in
my view, is politically negative, is bad, whereas if you have a music that reminds
people that there are political issues there, or somehow buried in this piece
there is a song about something politicalâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›it’s a small thing, it’s not going to
change the world, but it’s different, it just creates, or might create, a different
kind of association and climate than a kind of music that simply says, you
must meditate.

How do your composer colleagues react to your political convictions, and the
ways they are expressed in your music now?

I don’t worry about it a whole lot—as far as I can see, they respond to the music,
perhaps with the exception of those composers who were friends of mine and
were also involved in something like this, and are still involved in it in various
ways, the main figure being probably Frederic Rzewski, but there is also Yuji
Takahashi andâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›there are not too many left, reallyâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›Garrett List perhaps, you
know, people like that. They are always interested, because we have kept track of
176 occasional pieces

each other’s work, and we have gone through similar kinds of changes and have
similar political orientations more or less; but I think other composers just take
the music as it comes. Occasionally, I suppose, they could actually be embar-
rassed by the politics of it. There is definitely an element of puzzlement.

That’s not necessarily a mistake.

No, I think it’s fineâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›I don’t know if it is certain things that happen musically that
they find off-putting; they probably disagree because it has a political suggestion.
I think there is a fairly unrealistic split, because the musical choices are made
musically, and if they don’t work for somebody musically then they don’t work,
politics or no politics! You can have a totally nonpolitical composer who does
musical things that are terrible, or vice versa.â•›.â•›.â•›.

You said once that you now prefer a progressive rhythm, that is, notated
rhythm, as opposed to the static rhythm of indeterminacy, because it is able
to symbolize political progression—

I don’t want to be too schematic about that. I think as a composer, one wants to
do different kinds of things. The fact is that the rhythms that depend on coordi-
nation, like the open rhythms that I used to use and occasionally still do, as in the
hocketing section of Kegama, are very beautiful; but they are only one kind of
thing. The rhythmic world has more in it than just that, so I use these other kinds
of rhythms also. Then there are pitch considerations; if you are working focused
on pitch, then part of that focus is also a rhythmic focus and seems to need to at
least include more or less precisely measured rhythms. If you measure the
rhythms you can compose with them more.
There is a limit to what you can do in these hocketing situations and the free
rhythm situations, there is just so much that you can suggest, whereas the pos-
sibilities of working with measured rhythms are very large. Even when they stay
relatively simple, as they do in Kegama—and I like the idea of writing up rhythms
that seem relatively square—every now and again something is a little bit strange.
I am always surprised at how difficult players find these rhythms. I think there is
no problem at all here, because the way rhythms used to be, or still are in some
cases—you know, seventeen for twenty-two for five, this kind of garbageâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›In
fact, one can do things just as interesting with only quarter notes and eighth
notes; that’s an idea that appeals to me.

Highly elaborated rhythms can be very boring.

You don’t hear it! It neutralizes the rhythm.


Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 177

I would like to go on to the actual piece now. I tried to look up the word
kegama in a Greek dictionary—

Oh no, it’s American Indian, or Native American, it’s from the title of a song.
It actually isn’t spelled that way, it’s meant to be pronounced “kegama.” It’s a
Canadian folk song, a work song actually. The reason that it’s thereâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›it’s kind of
complicated, there are associations in there not terribly important to the music,
but it’s a work song, so it’s the kind of song that I use, a folk song about work-
ing conditions. The song is called “The Lake of the Caogama,” which is a lake in
Ontario in Canada. Why I settled on it—well, I liked the song, and I liked the
fact that it had this work dimension, but then it also connected with my notion

See Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Music, compiled by E. Fowke, Baltimore, MD:
Penguin Books, 1973, p. 62.
178 occasional pieces

about Alvin, who likes to go camping; he is an outdoors person, and the location
is rather remote, so I somehow made a connection between camping and this
remote lake. Then I also have a suspicion that Alvin’s ancestry is French, or
French-Canadian. He comes from New Hampshire, you know, and his father
in fact played a certain role in New Hampshire politics way back, but Lucier,
of course, is a French name, and there are many French-Canadians in New
Hampshire, who have come down over many years from Canada—I mean, these
are all vague associations, but they led me to a Canadian song, and that’s what
the title is about.

Is the music based on this song then? Is it this one song for the whole piece?

Yes.

Does it provide the material for each of its sections?

Yes, in one form or another.

So there is no music that is not derived in some way from the song.

This is true.

Would you say that this piece consists of four sections?

Yes, different procedures.

I suppose the first one would go up to measure 49, whereas the two simulta-
neous hockets in measure 50 would constitute the second one, then, from 51
onward there are the parallel sixths, and from 61 onward—

—up to the end, yes, I think, that’s a reasonable way to break it up.

I would be interested to know how you build all these different textures from
just one melody. For instance, what is it about the pitch organization?

It’s both the pitches and the rhythms, and if I had my material I could tell you in
more detail. But the kinds of things I do are pretty consistent, and I have been
doing it for years. The pitch material provides first of all just a collection of inter-
vals, and usually the first thing that happens is, the intervals are freely invertible,
so that the melody almost immediately takes on a slightly different look, because
instead of going up, whatever interval, you go down.
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 179

There are also


trans��positions, various
processes, and again,
I’m not sure which I
used here. But, just to
give you an idea (the
sequence of intervals is almost like a row, there are obviously connections to
serial thinking here), one way of going through it, apart from simply reproducing
the intervals, is to allow, shifting from intervals to the actual notes now, allow any
note to be transposed up or down a given interval, from minor second toâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›well,
the only ones that are significant are up to the tritone, the others are just inver-
sions of each other. So one thing that might happen is that you move a little fur-
ther from the melodic shape by allowing this transposition.

So would you perhaps transpose just a single note?

One tone would go up or down, say a half tone, then the next one not. You make
the decision for every single note, you see, it’s no longer linear; I guess you would
call it punctual. Each tone is treated for itself. That might be one thing, say, you
go through just doing the semitones. Then there would be whole tones, so I’ll
just jump to another interval. Sometimes I’ll do it just systematically, go right
up; half, whole, minor third, major third, fourth, tritone, fifth. I then also allow—
and this is peculiar, I think, to me—the possibility of reading a given tone in
either bass or treble clef.
180 occasional pieces

So that’s a kind of transposition, but it’s a slightly asymmetrical one because


it will produce either major or minor sixths. Now, this is not quite as systematic
as it sounds, because I don’t plan this ahead of time. I just start and see where the
music is going.

Does that actually mean you make a decision for every individual note?

I decide it just at the moment, yes, and if I find, for instance, that a given way of
proceeding is not leading me anywhere that I want to go, I will change it. It may
even come to a point where I am in the middle of, say, a process of raising or
lowering by half step and it’s not working anymore; then I may first try to do the
different reading of clefs and see if that gets me out of the trouble, and if it doesn’t,
I will just change at that point and introduce another interval, or do something
else. It’s rather loose in some ways, though ultimately, I can more or less account
for every note in the piece.
The other thing that happens are additive processes. I could, for example,
apply an additive process to the pitches of the tune; first pitch, first plus second,
first plus second plus third, first plus second plus third plus fourth. Again, I only
tend to start that way but go fairly soon, because that becomes too obvious and
transparent, so then I use the intervals instead. Now, I could also observe both
the rhythm and the pitch, but I could, say, use the original rhythm of the tune but
do the pitches additively. Or, conversely, I could do the rhythms additively but
use the pitches of the tune subsequently.
So there are all these various ways of recasting the pitch sequence of the tune.
It seems to me very much like Renaissance music, contrapuntal music. And
that’s basically it! The nearest thing you get to the tune is at the bottom of page
2, [measure 51] and in fact that—it does it in sixths, right?—that just lays it right
out for you, though it’s not the tune, it has the feeling of the tune.

It’s not the actual pitch sequence of the tune?

It’s not the tune, no. If you look at the beginning, you will see that the first phrase
through, the rhythm of the tune is there, but you may notice that the pitches in
fact make an additive process; you are unlikely to find a folk tune that is quite
like that.
184 occasional pieces

How does the additive process work here?

Let me have a look at it. I may even have left it untransposedâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›yes, the tune
begins B to G, G to G, G to F♯, F♯ to F♯, F♯ to E, okay? And here you get B, B to G,
B to G-G, B to G-G-F♯, B to G-G-F♯. It doesn’t actually even get to the second F♯,
it’s just the first four elements of the tune, and that’s what produces that. As far as
the rhythm goes, I think it comes from somewhere else in the tune, it’s not the
way it goes at the beginning.
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 185

What happens after that second page, starting with page 3, [measure 61]
where all those repeated notes are clearly no longer like the tune, is more pecu-
liar. The last stage is a collection of the notes of the first two pages in which each
pitch is just isolated by itself. For example, what’s happening in, say, the piano
part, the G, that’s simply a collection of all the G’s that have happened in the
piece, with the duration with which they have appeared, but not necessarily in
the order, partly because that would have created rhythms that are awkward (as
it is, it’s got some pretty awkward rhythms). I allow myself that, you know, to
shift that about. You see, there is one dotted quarter note G, and then there is a
half and then there are all the thirty-seconds—it’s not done totally systemati-
cally, because sometimes I may have done this and discovered that I missed one,
in other words, I made a mistake, and then I fill it in later.
Now that explains where the rhythms come from, why there are triplets suddenly,
or a whole string of dotted sixteenth notes, all these peculiar features, or gestures.
Now, they are gestures that I like, you know, it’s not a mechanical operation. I
sometimes have an idea like this, try it, and find that the result is terrible—well,
you know this—so I don’t use it. But in this case, I thought it worked out very well—

Sorry, which triad?

Oh, no, I didn’t say anything about a triadâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›I try it, I try it out.

I see, I thought you were referring to a particular triad—

There is one at the end actually, [measure 78] which is—

It’s C major!

C major, rightâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›as an accident! It was not a choice, those were the notes that
were left, they happened to make a C major triad.

It’s not very distinct, though.

No, you barely catch it.

But if you know it’s there it’s—

—it’s fairly shocking, yes.

There is another C major triad before that. In bar 39 and 40, the violin plays
G-E-C. Is that derived from the melody of the song?
186 occasional pieces

Yes. I mean, triads are nice, occasionally, they sort of emerge out of something.
In this case, I could conceivably have avoided the triad; instead of going down to
the C from the E, I could have gone up to a G♯, right? On the other hand, there
was a logic of the movement of the melody, which is basically up and down, so I
stayed with that and just happened to produce the triad.

Which is a bit startling, but at the same time very characteristic. On the
other hand, this could be one of those things that might prompt listeners to
find this music somewhat “odd.”

Well, “odd” is not “surprising.”â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The trick is always, isn’t it, to be surprising


without seeming to be arbitrary? It’s very hard to do that, and I assume that’s
what we are all trying to do; to make something that really sounds new, but does-
n’t sound as though it has no reason for being whatsoever.

You mentioned in an earlier conversation that you like to experiment with


the confrontation of incongruous textures, in order to find out how they
might react with each other. Do you think of this piece with its four contrast-
ing sections as such a case of discontinuity, although in the background, there
is always the continuity of the song?

It comes in chunks, it’s clearly, you know, one thing happens, and then another thing
happens; it doesn’t have the texture of a Bach fugue. There is perhaps a little more
happening for the amount of time than you might otherwise have expected. I don’t
know, does it feel too short? I had a slight feeling that it might be a little too short,
given the amount of material in it. Page 3 is really quite different in character from
what went before. What went before is mostly contrapuntal, is clearly two- and
three-part or solo writing, and then this tunelike passage in sixths is quite different—

It is a rather catchy moment, compared to the rest of the piece.

That stands out, yes, and in some sense also the previous hocketing passage, be-
cause it’s the only place in the piece where the rhythms are no longer countable.
But on the other hand, everything comes out of the tune, so there is a ground
underlying, maybe invisible, but enough of a ground so that, again, the differ-
ences between the sections don’t seem arbitrary. They may be surprising, but at
some level one doesn’t feel that this is suddenly coming out of another piece.
The other thing that maybe sticks out a little is where the piano has things to
do. The piano has gestures that are unlike anybody else’s, and that’s partly a con-
cession to the piano as an instrument. That’s why I have problems with piano
and melody instruments, because the piano is such a completely different kind
Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 187

of instrument. If you are going to write for it in a way that’s a little bit idiomatic,
then it’s going to sound different, and I try to—it’s a very brief gesture toward
it—but I try to let the piano, at least twice, do something just a tiny bit pianistic.
It’s the only one that has fast notes, for instance, and then it uses its low register
and goes way out of the range of everybody else.

In this context, do you regard the percussion as an equal partner? Its entirely
different instrumental color could be seen as confusing the overall sound, or
as incompatible within a chamber ensemble—or do you actually like that
about percussion?

Yes, that’s sort of how I think about it. Just as far as the number of notes or any-
thing goes, it’s more or less equal to everybody else. I try to make a fair division
of activity, but the fact is, it’s going to sound different and will introduce certain
elements I have no control over, because I don’t specify what things are used, or
the pitches that are introduced, for instance. But that’s one of the things I find
interesting about percussion. Again, like the piano, it’s always a little bit problem-
atic, and sometimes it doesn’t work. In the past, in pieces that are completely
pitch-oriented, occasionally I like to introduce a noise, or some element where
the pitch is totally incalculable, and I have always thought of percussion in that
light. I would do it even when there is no percussion, I’ll make an instrument
make a noise; maybe not very often, just occasionally. When I have percussion,
then the percussion just plays that function of introducing a noise element that,
you could say, is irritating, but it also opens up the texture somewhat.

Is there also a certain amount of humor, or irony, involved?

Sure, there is an element of that. I don’t go out of my way to be funny, but I cer-
tainly don’t like things to be too solemn either, at least not for too long. So per-
cussion is nice that way, it loosens things up.

That first section before measure 50 contains a number of “duets,” which at


times overlap with one another. What is it about pairs of instruments—
don’t you often use pairs of instruments?

Mostly because it’s the simplest kind of the hocketing situation. You are not talk-
ing of measure 50, though—

At the very beginning, there are three instruments playing, but the violin
drops out fairly soon, so there are two left. Afterward there is the violin and
clarinet, later on clarinet and percussionâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›there are also solos, though.
188 occasional pieces

The group that asked me to make this piece, which is this group in Borås in
Sweden, had these five instruments available, and I thought, all right, I’ll use all
five. Well, there are practical considerations, they were not over-whelming,
butâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›I didn’t have much time to write the piece and the notion of writing for
five instruments all at once, for five minutes—I just didn’t have any ideas about
that. So I began with a simpler texture and thought in fact that for most of the
piece I would, also to make it a little bit more manageable to learn, simply spread
the musical material around between the five instruments, and that boiled down
to a little bit of trio but mostly duos and occasional solos. Then, at least four of
them come together with the two hocketing duets on the next page, and then
finally, on the last page, because everything comes together, there are occasions
when all five are playing at once.

Did you want to make it more manageable because those players were not
familiar with your work?

Well, they actually were. They have been doing concerts for years and this was
their one hundredth concert. What they decided to do was to commission pieces
from the composers whom they had most performed over those previous
ninety-nine, or actually ninety-eight concerts, and that included Alvin, a fair
number of Swedish composers, a Hungarian composer, and myself, also Aldo
Clementi and Hans Otte. So they actually were quite familiar with my work, they
do it a lot.

In measure 11, the clarinet ends its phrase after the cello, goes down to the B♭
and starts a new section as the lower one of two instruments, whereas it had
been the higher instrument before. But again, it doesn’t start together with
the violin, the violin comes in a little later. Is that somehow constructed?

Yes, those are structural considerations. I could have chosen another instrument
than the violin, but it was clear that there would be another one at that point, or
at least a new phase of using the material.

But could it have started earlier?

The violin? Possibly, yes.

In measure 48, the cello plays just one single note. Does it merely continue
the piano?

I think so, yes, and then is picked up by the percussion.


Inter v iew w ith Markus Tr unk ( 1992) 189

Of course, that D could have been played by the piano.

It’s because up to there, the timing of the instrumental changes is fairly regular,
and here is just one exception to that.

It anticipates the hocketing in a certain way.

Yes, you could say that.

Between measure 3 and 4, the cello changes from C♯ to D♭ …

Yes, the spellingâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›it’s arbitrary, I mean, in this case, it may be in order to make
the cello focus on the next note. The problem—you’ve probably found this, too,
especially with strings, but with almost any melodic instrument—the problem
is that when notes are repeated, there is always a temptation to slur and to mask
the rhythm, so by changing the spelling, mostly I want to make clear the differ-
ence between those two notes. It’s even possible that the intonation changes a
little bit.

But you don’t necessarily expect a variation in pitch?

No, it’s mostly just to focus the attention of the performer that this is a different
sound, even though the pitch may be the same.

Thank you very much for this conversation, and for being so open about eve-
rything. There are composers who like to keep secrets.

Oh no, not at all. Really, the main problem is that I tend to forget what I do. I am
not interested in keeping up an exact record of everything that I have done, be-
cause I like to rediscover it each timeâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›yes, sure, anything you want to know
you can know!
27

Briefly on Cornelius Cardew


and John Cage (1992)

Toward the end of the time when the newer European—Stockhausen, Kagel,
Boulez, and others—and New York—Cage, and others—composers still main-
tained something of a lively exchange (say, about 1960), David Tudor and
Cornelius Cardew (also Kurt Schwertsik and Frederic Rzewski) were notable
for their involvement with both sides. Cardew had worked with Stockhausen,
but then came to find the United States composers more congenial (he was also
interested in current jazz, Thelonius Monk and Horace Silver, for instance). His
performance (circa mid-sixties) with Frederick Rzewski of Stockhausen’s Plus-
Minus in a Cageian spirit caused a scandal. Cardew’s own work seems to me
quite distinctive (even the later quasi-romantic political pieces), but from this
time one could mention as close to United States work his Memories of You, Octet
1961 for Jasper Johns, and Solo with Accompaniment.
This latter piece was written for the virtuoso and spectacular flutist Severino
Gazzelloni and mischievously requires almost no exertion at all on the part of
the soloist but has a very difficult accompanying part. This, as it happens—and
I’m sure it’s a coincidence—is exactly the case—plain and sober solo part, hard
accompaniment—with Cage’s 1987 flute and piano piece Two.
Cardew’s pieces shortly after, like the Tiger’s Mind or Schooltime Compositions,
seem well removed from the world of Cage. In their ways, they are highly inde-
terminate with respect to performance (but not at all with respect to their com-
position), and they are distinctively marked by (among other things) Blake,
Cardew’s fellow performers in the improvisation group AMM and Wittgenstein.
Cage would appreciate the latter and probably Blake but he had no interest in
improvisation. As far as I can remember, Cardew never showed interest in Zen
or Indian philosophies. What both share is seriousness about the connections of
moral issues and musical practices.
Though one could say that Cage’s presence had transformed the musical land-
scape for him, Cardew was as much drawn to the then less known and in some

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ways more idiosyncratic figures like Feldman, La Monte Young, Terry Riley,
George Brecht, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Takehisa Kosugi. By the later sixties, Cage
was presented as a “classic.” In the draft constitution of the Scratch Orchestra,
published in 1969 in The Musical Times of London, the repertoire category of
“popular classics” included (perhaps playfully), along with Beethoven’s Pastoral
Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, Cage’s Concert for Piano
and Orchestra; though Cage was also represented in the list of current composi-
tions by Variations VI.
Cardew’s work with the Scratch Orchestra, social and musical, was remarka-
ble. The orchestra’s anarchic character was close to a practical realization of some
of Cage’s anarchic views, though its general flavor (until it was explicitly politi-
cized to the far left) seemed milder, and its nonprofessional, folklike and cottage
industry character felt very English. Of the seven “paragraphs” of Cardew’s mon-
umental Great Learning, written for the Scratch, the second has something of the
hard-edged force of certain Cage percussion pieces of 1939 to 1941, and the fifth
is Cageian in its large collection of disparate, independent musical, theatrical
and sound activities to be performed simultaneously.
By the early seventies, Cardew had turned against the avant-garde, criticizing
sharply both Stockhausen and Cage (the latter at first somewhat more gently)
from the Marxist-Leninist position to which he had come to devote himself.
(Cage’s interest in Mao did not move him.) Cardew’s attack on what he regarded
as Cage’s apolitical formalism was strong, but oversimplified the relations be-
tween Cage’s actual music and its reception (often still problematic for both au-
diences and sometimes performers) and Cage’s articulate and challenging pres-
ence. Before long, Cardew gave his main energies to political work and his own
related cultural work, leaving behind polemics that had set some of us to think-
ing hard and that had done their task of freeing him up from the more esoteric
and idiosyncratic strains—though they too have their value—of his cultural past.

Written in March, 1992, at the request of Ulrike Brand and Alfonso Frattegiani-Bianchi, published
in Quaderni Perugini di musica contemporaneana, number 52–57, June 1992.
28

John Cage Memorial Text (1992)

John Cage, he came to our—Holly’s and my—wedding on August 1, 1965, with


David Tudor, driving up in Jasper Johns’s Jaguar from New York by way of Stony
Point, bringing a large beautiful old (slightly worn) painted cloth from India
with elephants on it (David brought a great metal spoon or ladle for cooking
things in as well as serving). (Morton Feldman and Cynthia came too. David
Behrman played the tiny antique organ in the church.) Some years later, John
passed through Royalton again, stayed at the stone house (Holly’s parents’) for
a night in the fall. We found quantities of mushrooms, some of which he cooked
and we had them with roast beef and then we had Hope’s—Holly’s mother’s—
apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Quite a lot of mushrooms were left over. John
got up early the next morning, before anyone else, and cooked them for break-
fast. Holly’s father, Ray Nash, bravely ate some. The rest of us couldn’t face them.
Then he came up with Merce Cunningham and the dance company to
Dartmouth College and spoke to a sullen, unbelieving class of students. He had
nerves of steel, not so much standing his ground as just being there, speaking
decisively, firmly, calmly, with just as much edge as the ideas he was setting out had.
The last time he was up this way he pretty much just turned up, a more diffi-
cult time (in the mid-seventies)—we’d come apart somewhat over politics, but
couldn’t help but go on being friends—his arthritis was bad, he brought along
quantities of wine to dull its effects and make it possible for him to sleep at night.
He described the difficulties of making the orchestra piece Apartment House
1776—the chance procedures hadn’t worked out quite right, the sound was too
thick, he had to start over again.
It’s too soon to be remembering John. We’ve been doing it all along for years.
When he had to say something after Morton Feldman’s death, he said, because
he saw Morty only occasionally, and Morty lived out in Buffalo, that it was like
most of the time when Morty was in Buffalo and John somewhere else. He thought
of Morty as still there. Actually Morty had been planning to leave.
At the memorial for Morty in New York, John couldn’t be there because
on  that day he had promised to be in Los Angeles for events celebrating his

193
194 occasional pieces

�
seventy-fifth birthday. John would have been eighty some weeks ago. There’s
going to be a party for him on Halloween. (Morty had provided and left instruc-
tions for a party after his death, and he said “no post-Mortons.”) I suppose we
can let them haunt us—as much or as little as we want—benign ghosts.

Written in October 1992 at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel and
published in: Musik Texte 46/47, November 1992.
29

Preface to John Cage, Morton Feldman: Radio


Happenings I–V (1993)

These conversations, clearly enjoyed by the participants, were carried on for a


radio audience. Of course they speak for themselves. (I have little local informa-
tion to add, just that Morton Feldman’s piece for electric guitar talked of in Radio
Happening II, of which I had the only score, kept in my guitar case, disappeared
for good when the guitar and case were stolen from our car in New York later in
1967. The piece had been played once each at Harvard, in New York, and in San
Francisco.)
They have a sense of freshness, perhaps because the time (1966–67) had
elements of transition. John Cage had taken indeterminacy to a limit of gen-
eralization in the Variations sequence (Variations V in 1965, VI and VII in
1966). The sound saturated HPSCHD, notions of scales and appreciation of
Mozart are on the horizon. Much of the writing that would go into A Year
from Monday (1967) was just being done. John’s appetite for and use of ideas
is more lively than ever, now additionally fired by Marshall McLuhan and
Buckminster Fuller (Thoreau’s notebooks will be drawn to his attention in
1967), and the ideas now explicitly include a “world” with economics and
politics in it (see the Diaries).
Generally, Morty’s work and preoccupations (with weight, color, and
pace, and with a kind of paradoxical purity compounded of self-abnegation
and truth-to-self, a purity John was to characterize as heroic, then erotic—fi-
nally, though, I think oscillating between the two) seem less changing. But
some shifts can be seen on the way at this time in the increasing elimination
of indeterminate elements in the music. Morty is also about to change pub-
lishers (from Peters in New York to Universal Edition in London), and a long
involvement with European music scenes is just beginning. Interestingly, it is
Morty in these conversations who raises questions about the Vietnam war
(Radio Happening IV).

195
196 occasional pieces

There are interesting differences, held in a kind of cheerful suspension—


there’s a lot of laughter in these conversations (unlike the conversation recorded
in 1983 and printed in the journal Res*). For instance, the discussion of collabo-
ration and individual, personal work (Radio Happening V), or of quantity and
quality (IV). Morty tends to be interested in the self ’s perspective on the process
of producing music, John in getting that process out into a social world. Morty is
more likely to be personal and intuitive, John detached and rational. But then
again there are, for example, Morty’s observations on the sociology of the
new music and art world and his acute sense of how Varèse’s music works (Radio
Happening V), and there are John’s moments of pure optimistic faith in (of course,
perfectly rational) ways that society could be improved and his final point of
reference, which he calls simply “poetry.”
When I said I would write something as a preface to these conversations, John
was still alive. Now both speakers are, like Satie, Joyce, Duchamp, and others in
John’s An Alphabet, ghosts. Death comes up in these conversations, toward the
end of Radio Happening II and twice in IV. John once mentioned that Morty had
once said to him that sometimes when he, Morty, was composing, he felt as
though he were dead, and then (he implied) some music was really happening.

Written at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel, published in: John Cage,
Morton Feldman, Radio Happenings I–V, Edition MusikTexte, 1993.

* Res 6, Anthropology and Aesthetics, Autumn 1983, Cambridge, MA, p. 112.


30

Sketch of a Statement (1993)

Between1950 and 1952, I began with minimalist pieces using small numbers
of  pitches (three to nine) in static configurations, and then (1953–56) went
on  to  more complex, through-composed ones using intricate structural de-
vices to produce “discontinuous” continuities, including a lot of silence. In 1957,
as the immediate result of a collaboration with Frederic Rzewski, I started
making pieces variously indeterminate. Ranges of choices were given to the
Â�performers—time brackets, source pitches, variously applicable playing speci-
fications, cueing systems, rhythmic notations determined not by pulse but by
coordinations, both predictable and not, between players. Because of the range
of the performers’ choices, both at the times of preparing and during the proc-
ess  of actually performing, and because of the unpredictable interactions be-
tween performers that would result, the music inevitably and variously changes
with each performance. The changes, of course, also reflect the performers’
individual natures and, as time goes by, changing aesthetic and social climates
(I think, for example, of early performances by David Tudor and recent ones by
John Zorn).
By 1962, indeterminate scoring included, partly in response to John Cage’s
Music for Piano and Variations series, instrumentation or sound sources and
number of performers (For 5 or 10 Players, For 1, 2, or 3 People, Pairs). One result
of being in London between 1967 and 1968 and performing with Cornelius
Cardew and the group AMM was Edges, a piece requiring experience with free
improvisation. I also began then the series of Prose Compositions, variable in
sound sources, scored as verbal instructions and performable in ways accessible
to nonmusicians. The next years, from 1969 to 1972, I think of as transitional.
There are some oblique responses to the musics of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and
Philip Glass—in the use of more periodic rhythms, quasi modal pitch sequences,
and sometimes a tendency toward more extroverted gestures (Tilbury 1–4;
Snowdrop; Exercises). Pitches or melodic contours and note-to-note rhythmic
movement are now mostly specified; instrumentation, numbers of players, over-
lays, spacing (silence and the larger rhythms of phrase continuity), dynamics,

197
198 occasional pieces

timbre inflection, and articulation are left open to the performers. A common
feature too now is improvised heterophony.
Burdocks (1970–71), for one or more groupings of players, brought together
and proceeded from a number of interests, including: an image in my mind
(I hadn’t actually heard them) of the Scratch Orchestra, a varied community of
musicians (classical, folk, experimental, jazz), both professional and amateur, and
nonmusicians, joined in a populist-anarchist spirit, initially more or less guided by
Cornelius Cardew with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons; hearing a re-
cording of Ba-Benzele Pygmy music (quasi improvised by the whole community);
and the structural idea of the piano part of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and
Orchestra, which required the continual introduction of markedly different or
new compositional ideas, a kind of pastiche of newness.
During this time, because of the United States war in Vietnam, various per-
sonal experiences and closeness to other musicians similarly affected, I decided
to make my political thinking and feeling (emerging and changing) somehow
part of my musical work. The first results were Accompaniments (1972), a piano
piece for Frederic Rzewski, requiring the pianist also to use his (or her) voice
and play percussion, with a text related to the Chinese Cultural Revolution of
the sixties; and Changing the System (1972–73), an extended piece for eight
or more players, with a text produced during the 1968–69 student upheavals in
the United States. Musically, the piano piece is mostly extroverted and decisive,
though the score leaves important decisions, especially about selection of mate-
rial, to the performer. The ensemble piece has far more indeterminate features,
but is meant to draw its energy from a combination of the content of the text
(about the need for systemic social change) and from the musical interactions of
the performers who enact—and explore—ways of change. Subsequent treatments
of texts, mostly through-composed, are Wobbly Music (1975–76) for chorus and
instruments, using texts from the largest radical labor movement in the United
States, the International Workers of the World (IWW, most active just before
World War I); I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman (1985), for solo female voice
and instruments, on a poem by the feminist writer Susan Griffin; and From
Leaning Forward (1988), a song cycle for soprano and baritone with clarinet and
cello, using poems by the political activist and writer Grace Paley.
In the mid-seventies, with String Quartet Exercises out of Songs (1974–76),
I began a long series of instrumental pieces drawing material from political folk
music, traditional and contemporary, from the United States, Europe, China,
and black South Africa. These include Braverman Music (1978), in which there
is a set of variations on the German concentration camp song “Moorsoldaten”;
a number of pieces made out of free variations on the feminist labor song “Bread
and Roses”; Exercise 21 (1981), which draws on a United States black slave lib-
eration song, “O Freedom”; and Rosas (1989–90), part of which uses a black
Sketch o f a Stateme nt ( 1993) 199

South African freedom song. The songs provide a kind of “content” for the music,
that is, finding them both musically and politically congenial I have them as a
point of expressive reference, and I hope that recalling a song will be an oppor-
tunity to recall its political occasion. The songs also provide specific musical
�material to work with, pitch intervals (modal in source) and rhythmic articula-
tions (clear, direct).
Sometimes, pieces are tributes to and reminders of people whose progressive
political lives I have admired (for example, Harry Braverman, worker and social-
ist labor writer, or the Rosas, Rosa Luxemburg and one of the heroines of the
United States civil rights movement, Rosa Parks). Sometimes, the tributes are more
personal: to Morton Feldman (For Morty), for example, or Merce Cunningham
(Merce), both of whom I have known since I was sixteen years old.
So—there are changes over the years and continuities. Among the latter
I would mention particularly respect for the autonomy of performers, a desire,
at all times if in various ways, to make a score one element in a conversation,
an inducement to exploration, something flexible, reusable, consistently useful.
I have, of course, also the hope that for listeners the conversation of score and
performers is the source of the character of the music itself, and that sometimes
this process suggests to the listener that she or he could do it too, perform or
make a score. I also continue to think that all music, on a wide spectrum from
plain and simple to intricate, is melody; and at the same time that each individ-
ual detail of a sound matters also entirely for its own sake—this is a respect for,
quite simply, sonority as such. I would never regard a score, whatever the degree
of indeterminate elements there are in it, as a fixed object (that would be a model
falsely drawn from the visual arts: music is more clearly comparable to dance
or theater). (I am not therefore unduly anxious about the specific identity of
any given piece, though some element of recognition, especially if combined
with elements of surprise, is usually a pleasure.) Among the changes I would
mention: an increasingly explicit orientation toward “realism,” in the sense of
human, social life.

Written at the request of Robyn Schulkowsky for the program booklet for two concerts of my
music, which she organized at the Neue Pinakoteque, Munich 1993.
31

Music—Work—Experiment—
Politics (1995)

This is a talk based on my work in music. That’s because it’s what I think I know
best, or at least know in a way others don’t. I can only hope that what I say about
it may be useful in some way to others. People (musicians, artists, and the like)
tend not to be entirely reliable speaking about their own work; their angle is
Â�peculiar; it’s very hard to transfer to the position of receptors, audience—it’s
probably just about impossible. You have also to watch out for artists talking in
generalities: these so easily are self-serving and apologetic for their particular
work. But then why not? In any case, beware.
I believe firmly that art work like other kinds of work is socially conditioned,
or better, is produced, willy-nilly, in a dialectic with social circumstances, that is,
with ordinary life, especially material life. But it’s also very difficult to feel this
conditioning, to be specifically aware of it as one works. The work, going well, is
absorbing, interesting. What matters, for instance, what at this moment makes it
possible: that you will be paid reasonably for it (or not), that you are out of work,
that you have an independent income, that you are taking time from other, sala-
ried work? The most specific observation I’ve made about the effect of outward
circumstances on my own work has been about, sometimes, its structures. I’ve
helped raise four children. As many know, when the children are small this is
time-consuming and somewhat unpredictable work, allowing various shorter
snatches of unexpected free time (a child has, surprisingly, gone to sleep). To be
able to write under these circumstances I found clear structural plans essential,
involving quite short, focused structural units, about, say forty-five or so minutes
worth of writing time.
The music then is an accumulation of shorter bits, a kind of patchwork (as in
quilting). If someone were to ask me what distinguishes me as a composer from
those composers with whom I have most often been associated—John Cage,
Morton Feldman, Earle Brown—I’d say that it was that I helped raise four chil-
dren and held a steady job not related to my composing. That is, I’d start with

201
202 occasional pieces

conditions under which my work (for about the last thirty years) has been done.
When I wrote my first straight-ahead, linear tune in 1970 in a piece called Burdocks,
David Tudor remarked smiling that the new presence of our two very young
children had brought something new to my music. The effects of holding a steady
job—to be sure a privileged one, as university teacher in areas (other than music)
which I found (find) interesting and absorbing, that is, overall nonalienating—
these effects have been to make me free of financial worry and the need to do
much promotion of my work, and so to keep the work from being engaged with
these kinds of pressures, pressures I think though, which are not all bad. Cage
referred to the period of the fifties for his work, when his own financial condition
was hazardous in the extreme, and when at the same time he had plunged into
the most hazardous musical ventures, the use of chance in composition and the
aesthetic austerities of “pure” sound-and-silence, as his “heroic” period. As far as
the domestic conditions of my work are concerned, though less the economic
ones, I have in fact been closest to the composers Cornelius Cardew and Frederic
Rzewski, close friends, musical collaborators at times, and close too in our
�political and musical thinking.
The forces acting on one’s work, the extent of them, their variety, are not
always easy to identify. As to their variety: I’ve mentioned briefly some economic
and domestic ones; I could mention a number of musical ones, where we speak
of influences; I might say that, apart from the dance work of Merce Cunningham
and perhaps, in ways not really clear to me, the art work of Jasper Johns, what
effects the making of my music most is other musics, and, occasionally, the per-
ceived world out there, the qualities and rhythms of the sounds, and sometimes
sights, around me, sometimes urban but now more often rural; how all this
�affects my work is various too, hardly ever a matter of imitation, but rather of
sometimes analogy, sometimes response as in conversation, sometimes the spark-
ing of a quality of feeling that I would like to recover, or better, simply also work
with, and sometimes too just the learning of a technical procedure. I think it’s
important to attempt some awareness of the forces acting on one’s work, though
not forgetting that too much attention to them can be a distraction and may
induce the kind of self-awareness that can paralyze that work.
That there are outside forces affecting one’s work is, of course, inevitable. There
is really no such thing as simple artistic autonomy. Propose a course of action, and
if someone responds saying “sure, go ahead, it’s a free country,” I’ve found, they
mean by this either disapproval or an irony that suggests that your freedom is
somehow empty. Theodor W. Adorno (who, in spite of some egregious blind
spots—mostly to the culture of popular music—is still, I think, the source of some
of the most useful thinking about twentieth-century music that we have) formu-
lates the following paradox or dilemma: if art (including of course music) “lets go
of (its) autonomy, it sells out to the established (social) order, whereas, if it tries to
Mu s ic —Work —Ex per ime nt —Poli ti c s ( 1995) 203

stay strictly within its autonomous confines, it becomes equally cooptable, living
a harmless life in its appointed niche.” This is, I believe, a real dilemma. Its presup-
positions are also noteworthy: that art is autonomous in the sense that its produc-
tion is carried on independently of its reception, its autonomy, that is, takes the
form of indifference to its audience; and that art has a potential capacity to make a
difference in life, in the life of a social audience, to be other than “harmless.” This
latter thought further implies that art can have an active, essentially oppositional
role in that social life; it could do damage to a status quo. Adorno writes with a
strong, indeed pessimistic, sense of the ravages both of fascism and of late capital-
ism. As regards the notion of autonomy at the point of a work’s production, I’ve
already mentioned the limitations or givens even there, in the form, for instance, of
the moments of history, social and musical, one finds oneself in, or in one’s eco-
nomic circumstances, that is, conditions preceding one’s actual musical work.
Another way of looking at the issue of autonomy: think of it as a matter of
choice and awareness, a choice—of what to do in one’s work—affected by the
fact that whatever you do has the possibility of taking on political meaning. No
work, no activity, in the end, insofar as it appears in public and has a social pres-
ence, is simply neutral, remains unaligned, is neither here nor there. Only the
natural and animal world are free from politics (though not free from struggle,
competition, and conflict). Human beings are, as in Aristotles’ definition, politi-
cal creatures; that’s what makes them human. And being political means being
aligned, being on one side or another in one’s social, interconnected, interde-
pendent life. That seems pretty much a given. But one may or may not be aware
of the social presuppositions and implications of one’s work. (The more that
work fits comfortably in a particular status quo, the more likely that such aware-
ness is absent or disregarded.) The autonomy of an artist, then, might be seen as
located in political awareness, in reflection on the political content or implica-
tion of her work. By political, I mean, not so much relations of power (though
they can hardly be neglected) as constellations and enactments of or struggles
involving values. Most simply, I mean social justice, the struggle for it.
Now how can that be part of music making? Well, rarely head-on. Political
expression, I think, requires political experience. One way or another we all
have, willy-nilly, some sort of political experience. But very few, I think, actually
pursue it. There’s often surely a strong temptation to avoid it. I’ll speak for myself:
insofar as politics has to do with the manipulations of power, I’d just as soon have
nothing to do with it. But power is the instrument, everywhere you look, of
social injustice. What can you do? You do what you can; according to circum-
stances (which are continually various and changing) and according to your ca-
pacities. You can do music work, you can do political work (and somewhere in
between you can do wage-earning work), and they might not have anything to
do with each other; though coming from the same source, yourself, there’s going
204 occasional pieces

to be some connection somewhere, however obscure. I’ve heard for example, of


the most esoteric poets, unreadable except by the smallest of elite, expert audi-
ences, but these were poets who were communists, political populists. Why not?
Adorno actually argues that only the most austere, high modernist art (for exam-
ple work like Samuel Beckett’s or Arnold Schoenberg’s) is politically defensible,
because resistant to a corrupt, commodified, capitalist culture industry. But this
view of the culture industry has been criticized as too simple (and it plays suspi-
ciously into Adorno’s deep distrust and misunderstanding of popular musics).
In a recent book, Dangerous Crossroads, George Lipsitz, while fully appreciating
the view of advanced capitalism as a monster of cultural cooption and hege-
monic control, nevertheless comes to the conclusion “that the same global net-
works of commerce and communication that constrain us offer opportunities
for cross-cultural resistance.” As Marx observed long ago, the dynamism and ex-
pansiveness of capitalism bring with them structural instabilities and loopholes
for countervailing forces to slip in. And capitalism’s continually developing tech-
nological resources are sometimes there for uses other than were intended.
Lipsitz’s case is made on the basis of observations of a number of popular musics
across the world. It recalls the simple fact that the strongest traditions of resist-
ance music, of political music, have almost always been popular or folk musics,
the political expressiveness of a range of black music in the United States, start-
ing with the music of the slaves; of Jamaican reggae; of Québequois folk music;
of South African pop. And as far as expansiveness of imagination is concerned
in non-high art music, consider these words of Hank Shocklee, who makes the
music samples for the rap group Public Enemy: “We believe that music is noth-
ing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, what-
ever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy,
to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.”
Another possible angle: thinking about content and form (and let’s talk now
specifically about music). Let me begin, because I found them at first surprising,
with definitions made by John Cage back in 1949. “Structure in music is its divis-
ibility into successive parts from phrases to long sections.” (I would add that
structure can be the means, the technique that makes it possible to have the
sound or silence be where it is, and for how long, and then what next, or is this
the end of: a phrase, a larger subdivision, the whole piece of music.) The surpris-
ing part, I think, is next: “Form is content, the continuity.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›Form wants only
freedom to be. It belongs to the heart; and the law it observes, if indeed it sub-
mits to any, has never been and never will be written.” This notion of form is like
Pascal’s heart that has its reasons that reason knows not of. Or, you could say, it’s
poetry. The identification of form and content is attractive because it seems inte-
grative and organic. It looks forward to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, to which
Cage was very much drawn in the sixties, about medium being message. But
Mu s ic —Work —Ex per ime nt —Poli ti c s ( 1995) 205

�
interestingly, Cage still keeps a separate category, structure (which one might
have supposed to be equivalent to form), structure that refers to framing (length
of a whole—the canvas of a piece, so to speak—and lengths of its parts, subdivi-
sions of that canvas) and refers to time, because in music that’s the essential
framing medium; and he works with time as a measured quantity, an “objective,”
rational element, clock time. (You could also say that, if you’re talking about
technique in music, its irreducible component is going to involve time.)
Now I’d like to propose another definition. Where Cage identifies form and
content while distinguishing structure, I’d say that form is everything that is the
music, the constellations of sound and silence that constitute a piece. And con-
tent is whatever the sound-and-silence as a piece might convey to an audience.
You could say that form is what composer and performer are concerned with
(though listeners might very well perceive it). And content is everything that can
be identified or articulated in terms that are not necessarily musical. Content has
to emerge between performance, indeed a specific performance in a particular
place and historical time, and its particular audience. Content is what answer
you give to the question what does this music mean to you, what is it conveying.
Not, of course, in many instances, an easy answer to come up with. It’s the notion
of content—and its possible relation to form—that I would try to use in talking
about the politics in a musical work. Attractive as the conflation of form and
content might seem, I would resist it because it implies an autonomy for music
that obscures or hides music’s potential political force and its political depen-
dencies. It’s only in a perfect world, where alienation and social injustice have
been eliminated, that content and form might be truly integrated.
I’d like now to sketch out a series of ideas or reference points according to
which, one way or another and variously, I’ve worked in my music.

1. Change. I began, in my adolescence, wanting to be different, wanting to


make music that didn’t sound like any other. (The lesson of the Western classical
music tradition in which I had been steeped up to that point was ambivalent: it
was a tradition, but the outstanding figures in it were all distinguished by the fact
that in some way they broke from that tradition. The realization that these breaks
were also determined by larger historical and social changes, including material
and technological ones, didn’t occur to me till later. The crucial first encounter,
before I met John Cage, around 1949, was with the music of Schoenberg, Berg,
and Webern. At that time, they seemed to me as different from what had pre-
ceded as I wanted to be (the effects of Webern I think can still be seen in some of
what I do now). One might think of Ezra Pound’s slogan for poetry: “make it
new,” a notion, I believe, which derived from the generation of Russian and
Czech literary critics who grew up around the 1917 revolution, and who spoke
of “making strange,” that is, decontextualizing the familiar, the conventional and
206 occasional pieces

status quo, thus making it an object of critical reflection. (I will come back to this
in just a moment.) My notion of change extends also internally, not just to the
relation of my work to others’ but also to itself over time. I won’t try to illustrate
that—it would take too long, but I’d say that to maintain a lively engagement in
the process of writing I try not to repeat myself, or rather, when a conglomerate
of ideas and writing techniques have been, as far as I can tell, sufficiently used,
I look for new ones, or at least additional ones. At the same time, if I hear from
elsewhere something that strikes me, that I notice for the first time, I want, if
I can, to make a response, and so take myself in a new direction. (I think of Erik
Satie’s remark: “Show me something new and I’ll start all over again.”) Change,
of course, in general, both in human history and natural, biological, geological
history, is inevitable; in its human form it can be reflected on and, it’s still my
hope, in some measure, in some way, chosen and directed.
2. Teaching. The notion just mentioned of “making strange” as, among other
things, a critical instrument, is evidently related to Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation
effect” (Verfremdungseffekt), applied to the various aspects of a theatrical repre-
sentation. The intent for Brecht is to make critical, responsive thinking part of
the immediate experience of a work of art. His intent is didactic; but teaching
not so much a specific program of ideas as a way of thinking and seeing the
world, a dialectical way (Brecht’s faith was that, given the disorders and injus-
tices of the world, thinking about it, deconstructing it, as we might say now,
cannot help but have some progressive effect). Brecht sees this thinking process
as itself a pleasure, and in general insists on the classical formulation of the art
work’s purpose to be at once a means of instruction and a source of pleasure.
(Cage, by the way, speaks only of music’s purpose—when he is not saying that
music is to be purposefully purposeless—as being edifying, “to sober and quiet
the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” He explicitly rules out
pleasure as one of his aims. Though, one could say, that when he refers to his
need for poetry some sense of pleasure surely appears.)

I have on occasion included in my music political texts whose lessons are


pretty straightforwardly clear and explicit, constitute almost pure “content.” This
didacticism is balanced only by a context that includes music and, ordinarily, a
performance setting that is aesthetically oriented, a concert situation not, say,
a union hall or a political demonstration. (It may also include the linguistic art or
poetry with which the political content is expressed.)
In much of my earlier work (almost entirely textless), people have drawn my
attention to analogies between the way the music is constructed for performance
and political procedures and structures—democratic, nonhierarchical, collab-
orative ones. Because my musical procedures require of the performers new kinds
of musical responses, interdependence, and decision making both independent
Mu s ic —Work —Ex per ime nt —Poli ti c s ( 1995) 207

and determined by the decisions of others (both the composer and other
performers), the process of putting a piece together and performing it have in
�

themselves a pedagogical character. And, like the learning process, each perfor-
mance of such a piece comes out differently, because of the indeterminate as-
pects of its material, and because of changing performers, the same performers’
changing circumstances, and differing performance conditions.
Much of this music also has a learning dimension insofar as its notations are
often new ones, or different uses of the old ones, which even experienced profes-
sional musicians have to learn from scratch. And in a number of instances, the
performance of the music requires not so much traditional kinds of technical
instrumental virtuosity as a kind of inventiveness and musicality that I think is
potentially available in a far larger population than professional performers.
My first notion, change and “making new” or “making strange,” applies inter-
nally also to the relationship of the music as composed, the score, to its perform-
ers. I have to admit that my writing of music has above all in mind those who will
play it. I am much less clear about how what I write may relate to those who may
listen to its performance. How they will listen, and what they will hear, I have
found to a large degree quite unpredictable.

3. Unpredictability. Indeterminacy. In general, of course, this is a condition


of life; perhaps death is determinate, but we, for our individual selves, don’t
even know that for sure. It is also a condition of the live performance of music,
which, as anyone who has ever played knows all too well, is always in some
measure unpredictable, susceptible to a various flow of factors, such as bodily
capacities and sensations, material (acoustic, atmospheric) conditions or psy-
chological configurations. That’s why it’s live performance. (I do have to ac-
knowledge that an overwhelming amount of music is now heard through re-
cordings, where performances are fixed and repeatable; and constructed in a
studio in a way that seems more like composing than performing. Of course
perceptions of recorded music by listeners still remain unpredictable. I’d also
note the paradoxical combination of a potentially wide distribution of music
through recording and the recordings’ privatizing effect, isolating listeners with
their music reproduction machinery.)
Some kind of indeterminacy figures in just about everything I’ve written
since 1957, by design. Some years earlier (circa 1950) I had written songs in
which the voice part’s pitches were indicated only as notes on a single line, rep-
resenting one pitch, to be determined by the singer, or above or below that line,
representing any pitch higher or lower, in a degree also to be freely determined
by the singer. The accompaniment was nonspecifically pitched percussion. The
indeterminacy of pitch simply involved a shift of specification from a parameter
where it is invariably taken for granted (pitch) to others that might more usually
208 occasional pieces

be specified only in varying degrees (exact rhythm, dynamics, particular timbres).


In the following years (up to 1957) I wrote highly specified music, except that
sometimes I would write—or rather find that my compositional procedures
(sometimes, in part, involving chance) caused me to write—music of a com-
plexity that a performer simply couldn’t play it as it was written. Mostly I left it at
that, that is, left it to the performer to make a decision to resolve the difficulty in
one of several possible ways, leaving an unavoidable indeterminacy in the pas-
sage from composition to performance. Once, a resulting composed complexity
seemed to me so impossible that I declared the tempo at that point to be “zero”;
that is, one constraining factor, the necessary cause of the impossibility, namely
time, was removed, or made indeterminate; by “zero” I meant any time at all.
In 1957, now because of an external constraint—the need to come up with
music for a concert, music of what I felt should be a certain complexity, in a rel-
atively short time—Frederic Rzewski and I came up with the idea of something
for two pianos in which we as performers each had time brackets and a collec-
tion of notes or an indication of silence for each bracket. Each of our parts were
somewhat different. There were overlapping brackets and note collections, each
of us being free to choose a designated number of notes from the collections, to
be played within the time brackets, in any particular rhythmic configuration we
decided (limited only by the time bracket).
These turns to indeterminacy look like ways out of difficult situations, like so-
lutions to problems or impasses, solutions that tried to be economical, on the one
hand, and, on the other, that, so to speak, leapfrogged the problems in an unex-
pected direction. But they were solutions through performance practice. What
I found in playing the two-piano piece was that the performer had to organize his
(or her) material before playing, that is, continue a compositionlike process, but
that at the actual time of playing previous decisions about what to play might be
changed because of what the other performer was playing (was independently
choosing to play or was playing in response to what you were playing). One might
think of improvisation in relation to these procedures, but in a fairly circum-
scribed sense. They’re not so-called free improvisation, with which I’ve also been
occasionally involved (in a piece called Edges, and playing with the English group
AMM), where one plays globally, in part from ground zero, partly in a kind of
symbiosis with the other players and partly out of the memories and habits of
one’s performing experience. The focus in these indeterminate procedures of my
pieces is sharper. Material is specified though over a determined range of specifi-
cation (from exact: do just this, to almost entirely free: do anything—within the
next three seconds); and time structures are given, which at least in outline are
rationalized, are based on overarching proportional relations. These procedures,
and pure improvisation, do have in common an ethic of what John Cage spoke of
as “non-intention,” a kind of active letting go of the simply individual self. Both
Mu s ic —Work —Ex per ime nt —Poli ti c s ( 1995) 209

also use indeterminacy as a means of discovery or surprise, as free of manipula-


tion and rhetoric as one can manage, such even that what surprises one and what
is discovered may include also some things quite familiar, but in this process
made new. This kind of indeterminacy and improvisation deal in what’s “unfore-
seen,” require that one be in some risky sense “improvident.”

4. Freedom. Briefly, from the composers side, freedom from the exercise of ex-
cessive constraint, from the imposition of rhetorical gestures, from inflexible ra-
tionalism, from efforts to push sounds and people around, recognizing that the
latter are the critical centers of musical production; also free from having to sus-
tain, beyond desire or useful purpose, a fixed identity. For the performers: free to
exercise their identities; to produce rather than reproduce music; to make in con-
fidence decisions, engaged in a conversation with the composer’s score. For listen-
ers: free (and encouraged) simply to listen and work out for themselves what they
might be listening for. As regards listeners, I have found the following responses to
my work the most encouraging: the music’s funny; it can be an inducement
� to be
actively involved in music making; it’s honest; it allows the listener her freedom.

5. Noise. This has partly to do with paying full and close attention to what some-
thing really sounds like, not, for example, just the E♭ played by the violin but as well
the sound of horsehair rubbing along a wire-wound string resonating against the
instrument’s hollow wooden body in a rhythm hovering along according to the
pressure and movement of a finger on the string and the muscular management of
the hand and arm pushing or pulling the bow. That kind of attention can be encour-
aged by having the musical activity, both performance and composition, concerned
primarily, say, with the pressure of the bow against a fingered string, rather than with
a requirement that E♭ be played. Which is not to take away from the presence of the
E♭ either, or its possible relation to a subÂ�sequent, say, F♯. Sometimes (apart from the
use of nonspecifically pitched percussion), I call for the production of noise in a
music otherwise dominated in the score by the specification of pitches. Sometimes
this is the result of the compositional process with pitches having reached some
kind of impasse, nothing I can think of to do with the pitches is working out; so I ask
for a noise. Again, if you like, a way out, but also a way out that I think of as extending
the music, adding to its grain. Generally, noise can mark or recall a certain recalci-
trance in one’s musical material, and its deliberate presence could be a kind of inoc-
ulation with an actual material world. The anthropologist Mary Douglas says that
dirt is simply “matter out of place.” Noise could be regarded as sonic dirt. But I want
to think of it in what represents itself as music as both out of and in place.

Lecture given 1995 at Victoria University, Victoria, British Columbia, at the invitation of com-
poser Christopher Butterfield.
32

Letter to Suzanne Josek (1996)

I don’t quite know what to say about Jasper Johns’s influence on my work.
The question is, what is influence? And how does visual work, and the think-
ing that goes with it, transfer to sound work? In John Cage’s company I saw the
early work of Johns, then have continued to go look at it whenever I could. And
over the years I’ve also seen a little bit of Johns himself. But we didn’t much talk
about his and my work (or any one else’s, except possibly Merce Cunningham’s).
I found his work at once engaging and puzzling, a combination I like. It seems to
me conceptually very active, but I don’t feel I have to work out the ideas, or rather
the ideas are completely contained in the work, alive in and through the work,
which I just want to look at. I’m also attracted by the combination, of “abstrac-
tion”—of the ideas, not necessarily of what is being represented, which is not
abstract in the “abstract expressionist” sense; it’s full of recognizable  things
(flags, numbers, maps, etc.), but is abstract in the sense that what is represented
doesn’t seem to “mean” anything in particular, is detached from any evident nar-
rative or signification beyond what it visually is, say, a number or a map. I’m
Â�attracted by this as it’s combined with the particular, localized, extraordinarily
lively quality of the actual painting, the brushwork, textures, colors.
I don’t think this specifically “influenced” me, but I’ve felt a general affinity to
what I hope to be doing in my own work, weaving back and forth between what
is purely abstract and variously expressive or evocative (what exactly this means
in musical terms is however still quite elusive).
I’ve always admired the elegance of Johns’s work, what Feldman might have
called its “classy” quality, which at the same time included strongly affective pos-
sibilities. It is work that at the time (and still) made a stronger impression on me
than the earlier abstract expressionist painters, though I did take an interest in
them too, an interest in work that was new and changed how you experienced
and thought about art. Actually, I don’t much believe in influence, at least as spe-
cific or direct. John Cage taught me about rhythmic structures, which I found
very useful. But it didn’t cause my music to sound like his. In fact, it helped me
make a music that would be different from his. On the other hand, if I hadn’t

211
212 occasional pieces

encountered that discipline (the use of the rhythmic structures), I might not
have written music the way I did.

The above is a re-writing (in 2013) of some of the content of a letter written in August of 1996
to  Suzanne Josek who had asked me what influence Jasper Johns’s work might have had
on my music.
33

Thinking of David Tudor (1997)

David, about to play For Prepared Piano at Darmstadt (I think in 1956), quietly
remarks to the audience that because the piano had no third (sostenuto) pedal,
he’d have to do something a little special. He used his left elbow to depress two
keys silently making certain harmonics possible.
He didn’t talk much, but when he did, it was worth all of your attention.
He was quiet, completely unassuming, but, I thought, not in the least diffident.
He was mysterious, surprising, and every now and again mischievous.
He spent a year working on Jean Barraqué’s piano sonata, then decided its
music didn’t work and cancelled the performance.
His attention to the smallest detail was remarkable. When recording was done
on magnetic tape and editing involved cutting and splicing everything, he might
spend hours fixing the decay of a single note inside a flurry of others, a tape cut
of maybe one-sixteenth of an inch.
Do you have any new material? he’d ask, meaning a piece and meaning (Â� quietly)
that he too would be making that piece (exceptional examples: John Cage’s
Variations II and my For 1, 2 or 3 People on those Columbia recordings produced
by David Behrman in the sixties).
Nothing was too hard for him, he liked it that way. My work for him, espe-
cially For Pianist for instance, he said was a conundrum. He was devoted to John
Cage’s work from the start (1950). So much invention, John’s and his. His actions,
performing, were absolutely clear and decisive, no matter how indeterminate
the material.
He once said he thought Picasso, through all those changes (I think he had in
mind a comparison with John Cage’s continually changing work), didn’t quite
pull it off. David loved the large Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York (circa 1987). Having trouble walking then, after a broken hip, he got
to go through in a wheelchair, the best seat in the house, he said, laughing.
Stefan Wolpe asked him to play musical examples for a lecture in Darmstadt
(1956). David, unhappy with the lecture—a long series of thumbnail sketches
of numerous American composers with short musical examples tacked on to

213
214 occasional pieces

each, when my music was characterized by its having lots of silence in it, played
a bit he could find with the most possible sounds in it.
When I was about to go into the army in 1959, John and David took me
out for an elegant farewell lunch at an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street in
New York. On the way there David insisted we stop at a Chinese general store
(we were going through Chinatown) from which he returned with a supply of
Tiger Balm for me. That’ll fix anything that might ail you, he said, and reported
that the storekeeper had told him if you put it on your penis it will drive the
women wild.
He liked being amused.
One recalls his extraordinary capacity for minute, controlled dynamic dif-
ferentiations when playing the piano. Listening to the softest passages everyone
would be straining their ears to the utmost, watching David’s every move.
Sometimes it was so quiet you wondered if you were only imagining the sound
as you watched the movement of his hands (with characteristically, sharply
�defined gestures) at the instrument. I once asked him whether he ever made a
move only pretending to make a sound. He smiled and raised his eyebrows, yes.
Somehow he was mysterious, enigmatic, and straight-ahead at the same time.
After reading something I had written, he liked the matter-of-fact-ness.
For that sixties music he spent more time preparing it at a table with pencil
and paper than at the keyboard.
We were once talking about the limitations of the piano as an instrument
(this was still when all he did was play the piano), yes, he said, just one ugly
sound after another.
He cooked with the same meticulous preparation and care with which he per-
formed. Highly intricate Indian cooking especially engaged him, and the hotter
the spicing the better. He said that in India they said that the highly intense
�spicing made you feel as though you had had something substantial to eat.
In a class at Darmstadt in the early sixties, David had suggested some of us
prepare a performance of John Cage’s Cartridge Music, even though the neces-
sary phonograph cartridges were not available, nor in fact any means of electric
amplification. We worked up something with objects that would serve as reso-
nating chambers and did a performance for the rest of the class. That day Theodor
W. Adorno had come to the class. After our performance he got up and spoke
at considerable length, and complexly, about what he considered the implica-
tions of this music to be. When he finished, David looked at him and said, “you
haven’t understood a thing.”
He was never known to have driven a car and when he, along with John Cage
and others moved out of New York City to live in the country, near Haverstraw,
about an hour’s drive away, there was always a question of how to arrange the
transportation. John and the others would do what driving had to be done, to
Think ing o f Dav id Tud or ( 1997) 215

shop, get into the city, pick up someone at the bus station. John would also do
the driving on the tours across the country for concerts with David and with the
Cunningham Dance Company. After a number of years of this, John and David
were on an especially long and tiring drive, John of course at the wheel. After a
while ( John told this story) David said, “tell me when you get tired and I could
do the driving if you like.”
In Groningen, David, Takehisa Kosugi, Nicolas Collins, and I put together a
piece (Or Four People) I’d made for us and the occasion—we had just half a day
to prepare it. For rehearsal we each worked on our parts independently and
simultaneously, making quite a lot of sound. At the concert the performance was
spaced and long, almost an hour, with lots of silence. At one point there was
a wonderful repeated thudding sound. David hadn’t seemed to be playing much,
but I thought he was the only one who could have produced it. Afterward, I found
out that the sound was some kids kicking a soccer ball against the outside back
wall of the auditorium. When we had finished the piece, David had asked why
the rest of us hadn’t made more sound. Generally, especially in his own work,
I think, he liked a dense, rich array of sound.
At the performance organized by Petr Kotík of Atlas Eclipticalis (all eighty-six
parts) at Carnegie Hall in New York, David simultaneously played Winter Music.
It was a ninety-minute version. David, not at all in good health, played heroically
and beautifully. After the concert he remarked that he had had trouble reading
his music (his eyesight was bad after a heart attack) and that sometimes he had
to just go ahead and play without reading the music. He figured out, he said,
what he had to play by ear simultaneously with his memory of what the music
was supposed to sound like.
The last time David came to our part of the country was about six years ago
with the Cunningham company. He had heard, I think, that we were near a
source of soapstone. We tracked down a store where he admired the products,
including soapstone stoves, and bought two skillets. Meeting him on the road,
there’d usually be an exploratory expedition, for items he had musical use for
and relating to food.
On an earlier visit, with David Behrman and Alvin Lucier and others, to
Vermont, he brought some special chili peppers and on the first morning put
them in a pan to roast, not realizing how hot the pan was. The chilis exploded
like a tear-gas bomb, permeating the whole house as we all ran out for air.
For a performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1965, of John Cage’s
Variations IV, which requires a large quantity of recordings (of anything whatso-
ever), David came up to check out Holly’s (then my fiancée) record collection.
He picked out various items, and, seeming very pleased by the idea, was about to
add a recording of Robert Frost reading his poetry, when Holly firmly shook her
head no. He laughed.
216 occasional pieces

He liked to solve problems, and not just musical ones, to be of use, without
attracting attention. He liked, I think, to do his work while you did yours, all part
of the same project. He always paid attention to what others were doing and took
care, if he possibly could, to see that you could do best what you needed to do.
You almost didn’t notice how he made all the difference.

Revision of a talk given at the David Tudor memorial in New York in 1996. German translation
published in MusikTexte 69/70, April, 1997.
34

Most Material: Evan Parker and Eddie


Prévost (1997)

Double album, double solos of two distinctive musicians, becoming duets in a


relatively rare space between solo playing and ensemble. Reed and percussion
start at different places, the one working through breath, the other pulse of ma-
terials being struck, one typically characterized by line, the other by attack, pro-
ducing in the first, pitch configurations, in the second, beat patterns (Prévost
doesn’t use the specifically pitched mallet instruments). Each player comes with
a distinctive sonic identity, but they’re frequently crossing. The main intersec-
tion is sonority. The saxophone can sputter, click and gesture, notably in the
Â�extreme registers and the rapid shifts between them, with just sound. Prévost
makes long, sustained attackless sounds by bowing his cymbals, and his invented
string drum tosses up melodic fragments. Percussion drives and saxophone
sings, but Parker can drive just as hard and Prévost also makes a singing sound.
Sometimes you can’t tell which of the two’s sounds you’re hearing.
There’s a lot of music here, like a long book, on eight tracks, each with its par-
ticular sound and overall shape but all part of a large, continuous process, coherent.
The ingredients of the coherence are various and in-process. The impulse of
the playing is free, improvised, discovering, but the playing is always in sharp
focus, clearly etched, completely attentive; nothing’s casual, there’s no drift. The
production of single sounds, extended continuities, streams of sound is exact, at
high speeds, at slow and searching, when the sound is scattered and spaces open
up, when it’s meditative or rhapsodic, or whatever in between it may be. Always
the playing fuses this focused discipline (exercised, incidentally, on remarkable
virtuosity) with impulse that rides the controls, and foci, of breath (with Parker
often circular, uninterruptedly sustained) and pulse, the processes of producing
the sound.
With sound production at source and center, melodic, harmonic, and rhyth-
mic structures are resultants. This may seem to give the music a rather abstract,
distanced feeling. But what could be more immediate than this closeness to the

217
218 occasional pieces

sounding process itself? The making of the sounds is a way of finding, letting
loose melodic tracings (often close to pentatonic and overtone-series related
pitches), cohering and dissolving rhythmic patterns, and the larger structural
shapes of whole pieces (cuts). The latter seem to me particularly transparent,
and so, affecting, in a rhythm of transformation, back and forth and forward,
between slower and faster, scattered and driving and flowing, variegated and
reduced, absences and presences—no drums, only drums, persistence in a register
of the sax, in a mode (color) of playing: timbral shifts making structural shapes.
The harmony is in the interplay and balancing of the players’ sonorities, and
�occasionally, surprisingly, pitch-related, the pitch of a drum tuned to by the sax
(say, toward the end of track 4 of the second CD). The sax too has its multiph-
onic chords (grounded in the instrument’s physical, acoustic construction) or,
when rapidly shifting between registers, implies, as in Bach’s writing for solo
Â�instruments, two or more vertically related sound layers. And Prévost’s bowing
on metal produces rich harmonic sonorities.
Though the music of these duets might appear abstract, avoiding obvious
epiphanies, the quality of the sound-making persists at an unfalteringly high
level of attention where, at almost any moment there may be surprise and dis-
covery. As listener you, too, then, have to be a discoverer. For all the edge and
drive, the music’s not aggressive, not at your throat. It’s more matter-of-fact
(as John Cage said of Satie’s music, that it was simply in your face). It’s tempting
to say that these performances are masterful too, the music of two masters—
meaning nothing pretentious, just technically, in the sense of accumulated and
sustained craft and invention, experience, and renewal.

Liner notes for most material, Matchless Recordings MRCD 33.


35

Frederic Rzewski and His Piano


Music (2001)

These recordings represent Frederic Rzewski as composer-pianist. Though the


general notion is that composing takes precedence, the combination with per-
formance was historically the norm in Western classical music, as it is still in
much of jazz; or, as in the latter case, when traditional or pre-existing music is
performed, the point or essence of the music is in the performance. The present
recordings are of pieces written between 1975 and 1999, representing about
three-quarters of the piano music Rzewski wrote in that time. The recordings,
made between 1999 and 2000, are all new, the composer’s most recent readings
in the always evolving process of performing.
More than half of these pieces (“Which Side Are You On?” of the North
American Ballads, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, Mayn Yingele, Fantasia
and parts 1, 2 and 3 of The Road) include occasions for improvisation. These,
invariably taken up by Rzewski, are of course new here as they would be in any
performance (the recording of them is like a snapshot of an action otherwise not
repeatable).
Performance is the immediate engagement, a conversation with what was at
some other time written down. A number of the present performances, espe-
cially of the more recent pieces, differ from previous ones in seeming to be more
deliberate and reflective. It’s not that energy or focus is diminished, but the play-
ing tends to be like that of someone who wants to hear as clearly as possible the
textures and sonorities of the music and to represent as audibly as he can the
compositions’ internal operations. Some of these performances extend consider-
ably beyond their estimated clock time durations (the extreme case is the sonata,
reckoned to be about thirty minutes, but in the playing coming in at about forty-
eight). We are reminded of the differences between musically felt time, itself
often variable, and clock time. This play with time can be experienced in the
case of the improvisations offered toward the end of “Which Side Are You On?”
and Mayn Yingele. The scores specify that the improvisations should be at least

219
220 occasional pieces

as long as the written music that preceded, but (like the cadenzas in a classical
concerto) they also create the impression of a suspended time; the music is now
temporally immediate, forgetful of linear structure, moved by subjective impulses
and memory.
Improvisation is a crucial ingredient at the center of Rzewski’s work. He is well
known as an exceptional keyboard improviser. He cofounded in the sixties and
for a long time played with the free-improvising group Musica Elettronica Viva
(MEV). He has played with jazz composer-improvisers like Steve Lacy and
Anthony Braxton. In the seventies, he regularly played self-contained impro-
vised pieces at formal concerts. These were shaped by pre-established structural
schemes. The way of playing and what he played was so clear and decisive, and often
highly complex that it was hard to imagine that the music hadn’t all been written.
One can also say that improvisation and composition are for Rzewski inextri-
cably combined. And, partly because composed, written pieces often have space
for improvising with nothing or only the most general suggestions indicated for
the player, this interaction of what’s improvised with what’s written and their co-
existence are themselves what the music is really about, what we should be lis-
tening to. This is not just a formal or procedural matter either. One can see it as
the expression of an ideal and a dilemma of human living. No music, no genuine
human action or feeling is without spontaneous impulse. The capacity and space
for such impulse make up our human freedom. On the other hand, improvised
spontaneity is always on the brink of arbitrariness and chaos or absurdity. The
drama of that dilemma is the drama of Rzewski’s music.
This drama too may account for a seeming paradox. Rzewski’s work has some-
times been seen as simply eclectic, and so too not fitting well into any single
standard category. To be sure, he knows well, and in some cases has extensively
performed, a wide range of musics—classical, folk, blues, jazz, avant-garde experi-
mental among them. And elements of all of these can be seen in his work, though
not as simple appropriations; rather, he experiments with them and keeps in
touch with musical traditions whose vitality continues to be affecting, for him
and for listeners from a variety of musical backgrounds. Yet, with all this, I think
it now has to be agreed that Rzewski’s music simply sounds like no other.
Of various ways to give overall shape to a piece of music, Rzewski comes back
repeatedly to the traditional one of variations. One can imagine the origins of
this formal procedure as improvisatory. There’s a tune, invented or pre-existing;
at first you repeat it, then gradually vary it and then take off from it (a common
procedure of traditional jazz). The variations are for the sake of change, for an
individual take on given material for the exploration of the possibilities of that
material. Rzewski generally chooses pre-existing tunes, carefully (a contrary ex-
ample would be the arbitrary imposition of Diabelli’s tune for Beethoven’s mon-
umental set of variations). These choices are clearly dictated by the meanings,
Fred er ic R z ewsk i and His Piano Mus i c ( 2001) 221

the texts of a song’s tune, which generally have to do with people’s everyday lives,
with political issues, especially of social justice, labor struggles, anti-fascist
Â�resistance, demonstrations for peace and disarmament. Children’s songs are also
important, because children represent the hope these various struggles draw
on (and because children have long been part of Rzewski’s life; the humor and
wildness that come with them appeal to him too).
The tunes are also attractive musically. At a technical level, they bring to
the musical fabric primary melodic and harmonic material, and a ground of
vernacular rhythmic patterning, regular, swinging, and syncopated. (They bring
as well, in traditional performance, “extra-musical” sounds—vocal exclamations
and noises.) The melodic-harmonic material is modal, with more of a feeling
of  equilibrium than the so-called functional harmony of classical music. The
rhythmic patterning generally has perhaps more of a continuing, rocking, heart-
beatlike pulse than classical music’s tendency toward declamatory and constructed
rhythmic shapes.
This material is one strand in a larger web that includes in its harmonic lan-
guage elements of classical idiom, especially later twentieth-century developments:
the stacking of primary intervals (fifths, fourths); chromatic chordal construc-
tions; the recurring use of fixed intervals; the overlay of tonalities (polytonality)
and “atonality,” twelve-tone related and wholly chromatic, sometimes extended
to a kind of harmony of white noise in the use of tone clusters and glissandi. The
music moves freely among these various strands so that they seem to be in an
almost constant state of fusion. What guides this movement is sometimes clearly
systematic (as in the sonata’s middle movement anchored on open triads of A
major), sometimes more elusive but following sequential references to cycles
of tonalities, and sometimes more opaque to analysis, inventions of the com-
poser perhaps purely improvised, even willfully arbitrary. The rhythmic vocabu-
lary also ranges widely, from the decisively square, through the vernacular rhythms
mentioned earlier, to multirhythmic counterpoints and highly fluid procedures
in metrical shifts and shifting tempi.
Rzewski is a virtuoso of compositional techniques as he is of playing the piano.
He also has a wide knowledge and culture not just of musical traditions but also
of the classics of Western philosophy, literature, and social and political writings.
(He’s also fluent in a number of languages: Italian, German, French, and, more
recently, Russian.) And he’s got a pretty good command of classical Greek. Ideas
and their drama are always engaging him, and the music connects to this. There
are a number of major works involving texts recited or sung, �including Jefferson
(1970), Coming Together (1972), Antigone-Legend (1982), The Persians (1985),
The Triumph of Death (1987), De Profundis (1992), and Crusoe (1993). These
texts come from a wide range of sources—Thomas Jefferson, the Attica prisoner
and political activist Sam Melville, Bertolt Brecht (adapting Sophocles),
222 occasional pieces

Aeschylus (translated and adapted by Rzewski), Peter Weiss, Oscar Wilde, and
Daniel Defoe—all dramatic and politically engaged. Rzewski has worked with
the progressive Living Theater, its cofounder Judith Malina, and one of its main
members, Steven Ben-Israel. The last section of part 4 of The Road is the first of a
series, extending into part 5 (in progress), that includes texts spoken by the pianist.
Of the ten pieces on these recordings, the earlier four, written between 1975
and 1988, are sets of variations. They come with texts, directly in the titles and by
implication through the words and associations, of history and feeling, of the
songs on which they are based (Rzewski provides the texts in his notes on the
pieces). Three pieces—Fantasia, A Life, and Fougues—stand somewhat apart.
Fantasia is freely improvisational both in its collection of written, composed
material and in its actual performance. It seems to be the only piece here without
a predetermined structural plan. Like the Sonata its title evokes a classical form
and genre. It links Rzewski’s long involvement with improvisation to a tradi-
tional practice. Though informal at its source, the music does trace a kind of arc
from the tonal opening with its transparent counterpoint to complex events of
elusive tonality. It’s got a sort of easy-going and yet focused way at the same time,
rather like an at once intense and drifting late-night conversation.
A Life is a memorial tribute spontaneously conceived upon the death of John
Cage. Its only identifiable formal features—eighty repeated low Gs (the years of
Cage’s life, almost) and the overall duration of four minutes and thirty-three sec-
onds (title and form of his best-known composition)—are wordless signs of the
music’s subject.
The title Fougues—“impetuosities,” or “exuberances,” with possible cognate
suggestions of flight or, musically, fugue, contrapuntal elaboration, and perhaps
also of a center where there’s fire (focus is Latin for hearth)—suggests a mood or
spirit in which the music may have been composed and how it is to be played.
The composition uses extremes of abstract formal design: twenty-five times re-
peated structural units of three fifteen-second phrases, each unit referring to a
successive tonality as determined by interlocking major and minor circling-fifth
intervals, beginning and ending on C major; and, within those frames, complete
freedom of writing without reference back or forward except for occasional
and apparently casual memory traces. This remarkable piece is like an extended
study in spontaneous writing or compositional improvisation, but improvising,
so to speak, on nothing except the fact of energy itself. It’s also a highly demand-
ing technical study or etude for pianist. The spirit of the compositional process
and the requirements for performance push and to some degree transform the
formal constraints. The preplanned scheme of tonalities is sometimes so allusive
as to be imperceptible (say, at the start that seems almost deliberately to avoid
the requisite C major, though in the final Fougue, as if by way of complement,
and just about for the first time in the whole set, the music is lucidly in its
Fred er ic R z ewsk i and His Piano Mus i c ( 2001) 223

r� equired key: as it happens, C major). The timings of the individual Fougues, pre-
scribed each at forty-five seconds, turn out to be more various, sometimes
Â�because of what’s written and the tempo indicated, sometimes because of the
demands of the playing itself.
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is now generally regarded as a clas-
sic. Its scale, compositional conception and execution, and their integration with
a core political position—oppositional, commemorative, unifying, both gener-
alizing and still rooted in a populist and anti-fascist history that continues to
matter—confirm this status. The North American Ballads, Housewife’s Lament,
and Mayn Yingele are more closely focused, connecting, it seems, to personally
felt occasions as well as to an historical past. The songs on which all these pieces
are based have clear and sustained musical presence. They appear complete and
in a straightforward arrangement at least once in a given piece and otherwise by
frequent, recognizable partial references. They shape the pieces as a whole. Though
the songs are often about hard life circumstances, Rzewski’s musical treatment of
them (as well as their very presence at the heart of the music) conveys a sense of
optimism, of genuine life experiences, and a vitality that signals hope.
In the sonata, Rzewski evokes an abstract classical form heavy with historical
associations. Exact structural schemes make an overall formal grid for each of
the three movements. In the first they contain or mark limits for freely impulsive
compositional gestures. These, in turn, are generated out of given thematic ma-
terial, once again songs, six of them: an idiosyncratic collection of children’s
songs, anti-war songs, and a tune, “L’homme armé,” famous in fifteenth-century
Europe (and used by almost every notable composer over the following two
hundred years), roughly square and edgy, its text not quite clear to us, perhaps
menacing (“The armed manâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›one should fear the armed man. The warning has
been shouted out that everyone should be armed with a suit of mail.”) Of this
song material some is widely familiar, and all of it, whatever its period of origin,
has the sound of popular music. Unlike the earlier variations pieces, though, the
songs now appear mostly in fragmented form. The sonata evokes a whole seg-
ment of Western musical history, both classical (the piano sonatas of, say, Haydn
or Beethoven, or Liszt or Boulez) and vernacular or popular. It dramatizes a ten-
sion between a high art form, shaped at once by rationalized abstraction and
subjective and individualistic impulses, and the expressive immediacy of every-
day people’s music, a music that is also impersonal and seemingly timeless. The
general feeling of the piece appears to be dark. The first tune presented is “Ring
Around the Rosy,” believed to refer to the funeral pyres of the dead from a plague.
Another tune, “Three Blind Mice,” seems banally innocuous, but its text is
�certainly violent and strange or nonsensical (as often is the case in traditional
children’s literature). The sonata’s middle movement is a carefully structured
meditation on the military tune “Taps” that marks the end of the day or the end
224 occasional pieces

of a life. And “L’homme armé,” a soldier-and war-related song, comes back in the
final movement, as the one theme of one more set of variations.
De Profundis belongs to a genre originating in the eighteenth century called
melodrama, in which a text is spoken with musical accompaniment and (or) mu-
sical interludes. Sometimes this piece also recalls the readings to jazz accompa-
niment by the Beat poets of the sixties. In Rzewski’s own work, there is a particular
precedent in Coming Together. There, as in the later piece, the text is made out
of extracts from a letter written by a prison inmate, jailed for political reasons,
describing the miseries of the experience and then a new focus on the sense of
one’s life and hope in the future, newly wrung from that experience. The pris-
oner in that case was Sam Melville. When the piece was written (1972), he had
been in New York State’s Attica prison and was, soon after writing his letter,
among some forty inmates killed by their jailers in an uprising, despite his having
worked closely with law enforcement to better prison conditions.
De Profundis is made out of eight instrumental sections alternating with eight
sections of spoken text with music. All these sections are variously dovetailed,
for continuity and dramatic shape. Rzewski carefully chose and rearranged the
text extracts out of Oscar Wilde’s letter of the same name. The music starts with
a combination of the sound of the human person—sharp intakes of breath—
and piano sound. The human voice, speaking intelligibly and not, expressive
simply in itself, is active in all parts of the piece. The second text section, refer-
ring to “the zanies of sorrow,” is preceded by a crazy quilt of keyboard passage-
work, dissonant and consonant, whistling (including a snatch of “London Bridge
Is Falling Down”), rough singing and a sort of desperate humming, sometimes
all but drowned out by the piano. The third section of text closes on the “spiritu-
alizing of the soul,” and so is followed by contrapuntal keyboard music that evokes
Bach. After accounts of suffering, the music doesn’t shy from moments of strong
pathos, but these are balanced and purified by an increasing transparency in the
musical textures, and a quieting of the voice. This starts in the fifth text section,
but the process is first sidetracked by the address to the specific cause of Wilde’s
imprisonment and anguish, his dreadful lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. The sixth
text section, directed at Douglas, is a whisper in grief and despair, over drum-
ming on the piano’s wood frame and body. It’s followed by vocal and instrumen-
tal outbursts, including baby and toilet exclamations and a snatch of Leporello’s
first singing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, embedded in all of which (uniquely out of
structural place) are some words on the failure of all forms of government. In
section seven the theme of time in prison, slowed to near immobility, is taken up
as it has been throughout, but now together with words and images of ideals of
what may be perfect and of love somewhere. The accompanying music is a slow-
motion chorale. The last text begins like the first, about prison, “where the artis-
tic life leads a man.” But the sense has been shifted by the progress of the piece
Fred er ic R z ewsk i and His Piano Mus i c ( 2001) 225

to the possibility, if only most tenuously there and counter to most reason and
experience, of hope and transformation. The accompanying music is sparse,
open, and quiet.
The Road is a work in progress, Rzewski’s largest project to date, planned as a
huge overall structure of sixty-four pieces (or “miles”), eight sets of eight, each
set so far about twenty-five to thirty minutes long. The pieces or miles in turn are
mostly structured in eight segments. As the composer says, the piece is thought
of as a collection from which to choose. Listening to all of it would be excep-
tional, like, say, listening to all of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (which
come in eight sets of six songs each; Rzewski has himself performed the com-
plete collection in concert). Again, various songs, of protest, blues, of the lowly
military recruit, get used. But the main texts of the music are suggested by the
image of its title. The piece, or the first four larger parts so far completed, is an
array of episodes coordinated both musically and by suggestions of something
like story lines. There are threads to follow, though no final end is in sight, as a
road takes us, as we see it, only to the horizon we can make out from a present
location, until we move on. The pieces are a collection and sequence of explora-
tions, variously guided. The first part or gathering of eight pieces is “Turns,” coming
around to something, encountering changes. The music begins in a technically
formal way with contrapuntal weaving. The counterpoint is cumulative: each sub-
sequent phrase adds another layer to repeated melodic material. Then things open
up with playful and fantastical events. The piano’s sound resources are extended
to include its direct wooden frame and keyboard lid. The direct physicality of
that sound involves other uses of the performer’s body, knocking and slapping
on wood, then later on itself. The performer’s voice and breath too will be used
in singing and whistling, and the breath in measuring durations of piano sounds.
Finally, from the everyday world of children, toys, and noisemakers will be added
to the performer’s resources, humorous counterweight to the piano’s grandeur.
In part 2 (“Tracks,” the next eight miles), the road becomes a railway track, an
unceasing succession of sixty-four variations. This is now a road you can’t get off.
The tune used evokes an extensive body of train songs. A landscape of distance
and human loneliness is suggested by the music’s spaciousness. The continual
shifts of a train’s movements, especially the accelerations of departures, are rep-
resented by the music’s constant shifts of tempo and meter. And there’s a humor-
ous and affecting literalism in the sound of train whistles and in the immediacy
of human whistling.
“Tramps,” part 3, implies movement imposed, as in marches or the life of the
road for lack of choice, or maybe because of inclination. Sharply articulated rhythm
is now an important feature. The underlying meter throughout is the square
four-four of marching. Mile 21 (the part’s fifth section) is entirely percussive,
a study in added and subtracted rhythmic patterns. By the eighth, last section
226 occasional pieces

(Mile 24), the music’s movement over a square base becomes beautifully fluid in
a stately, progressive way—this after extreme fragmentation and scattering of
sound in Mile 22.
Part 4, “Stops,” in its first six pieces or miles has largely to do with breath:
catching one’s breath and recovering its rhythms. There’s also a constant struc-
tural rhythm of long-breathed phrases in multiples of eight. All eight pieces are
carried continuously along harmonically by a recurring, restricted collection of
pitches. In the seventh piece (Mile 31) nine running figures on the keyboard,
half doubled in octaves, half as single lines, vary in length from nine bars to one
in a patterning that moves toward a center (nine and eight bars, then one and
two, then seven and six, then three and four, and finally five). Each of these
phrases ends with a different noise and a bar of silence (the last of which be-
comes a short noise improvisation). The fifth piece (Mile 29) includes closed-
mouth grunts and squeals (still in the patterning of eight), which stretches what
is funny to something nearer grotesque. The last mile of this set makes this reg-
ister explicit, though it also brings into the piece for the first time the human
speaking voice. The formal patterning—by now a combination of structural shap-
ing and something like the composer’s private game—persists. Eight phrases of
keyboard music, in octave doubling, accompany spoken lines from the end of
Gogol’s “The Nose,” a grotesquely comic and wildly satiric story about a bureau-
cratic functionary whose nose leaves his face to lead an independent life of its
own, and then inexplicably returns. The phrase lengths this time move out cen-
trifugally (five and six bars, then four and three, then seven and eight, then two
and one). At the end of each phrase of spoken Russian text with accompanying
music there is a one-measure space for translation, without music (this is where
in Mile 31 there had been noise and then silence). Finally, when the text is fin-
ished, there is a coda of eight bars of a slowly rising melody in octaves, from the
lowest to the highest of the piano’s notes, framed at either end by noises.
The Road is here at about midpoint. This last mile suggests the possibility
of the world’s meaninglessness or final absurdity: is the road going nowhere?
Still the music carries on with its arithmetical structures, arbitrary perhaps but
structures all the same. And the alarming possibility of chaos is countered with
humor, and hilarity, however unsettling. At another pole of Rzewski’s work are
the humane reminders of social and political disorder, exploitation, injustice,
abuse of power, environmental destruction. This is our road. And this, one could
say, Rzewski confronts in that sphere where he excels, in the disciplined persist-
ence of his musical work, composing and performing, tireless, resourceful, and
generous in the breadth of its vitality.

This was written for the CD box “Rzewski plays Rzewski: Piano Works 1975-1999,” NONESUCH
79623-2(2002).
36

Merce Cunningham and CW Music (2001)

In 1952, I started to make a piece, For Magnetic Tape, which was assembled by
John Cage, David Tudor, and Earle Brown as part of a rather short-lived project
of tape music made at the studio of Bebe and Louis Baron in New York. (The
project also included the making of pieces by Morton Feldman, Earle Brown,
and Cage’s Williams Mix.) Merce Cunningham heard about my piece and asked
that it be extended to be long enough for a new dance, Suite by Chance, for his
newly formed company in 1953.
Then there were three remarkable, complex and, as Carolyn Brown, put it,
explosive, solos of Merce’s, for each of which he used piano pieces that David
Tudor was playing at the time: For Piano I with Untitled Solo (1953), For Piano II
with Lavish Escapade (1956), and Suite (I) for Changelling (1957).
In 1959, there was music I was asked to make for the dance Rune. I was then
in the army, stationed outside San Antonio, Texas. I sent my score, written in
pencil, to John Cage. In order to make the music practicable for the instrumental
ensemble and the rehearsal time available, John made a realization of the score
(it was entirely in an unconventional “open” notation), and copied it in his ele-
gant hand (my original twelve or so pages of very small, scribbled handwriting
turned into over eighty beautiful, lucid pages). Rune was revived in 1982, 1995,
and 2000, and for almost all these performances the original instrumentation
was not available or manageable financially, so other pieces of mine were used:
the Duos for Pianists at first, then Or Four People (for unspecified instrumentation);
an example of Cunningham’s openness to the free relation of music to the dance.
In 1970, David Tudor used out-takes from his baroque organ recording of For
1, 2 or 3 People to make the music for the dance Tread. And in 1972, after hearing
a performance of Burdocks, Merce asked to use it for the dance Borst Park. The
instrumentation of Burdocks is open, so various performers took part, including
David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, Garrett List, Frederic Rzewski, along with
Tudor and Cage.
Starting in the 1990s and continuing till the company’s end, I’ve also been
involved in collaborative improvisations for dance “Events” (ad hoc collages of

227
228 occasional pieces

material from the dance company’s repertoire) with, among others, Takehisa
Kosugi, Steve Lacy, Christian Marclay, Keith Rowe, William Winant, John King,
David Behrman, Ikue Mori, and Robyn Schulkowsky.
In 2001, I was asked to make music for a new dance of Merce’s. Kosugi (then
in charge of the company’s music) asked for material that could be performed by
the two of us with the possible addition of one or two others. I started with what
Kosugi plays, electric violin, and the fact that he sometimes uses his voice as well
as harmonicas and various percussion instruments. I also knew that for the first
performance Krystina Bobrowski, a composer and instrument-maker who also
plays French horn, would be playing. No electronics are specified, but there is
(as always for the dance performances) amplification, and I made an additional
part for the audio engineer, who records parts of what is being played at specified
times of the performance, and then plays these back at later specified times,
through speakers variously spaced away from the pit where we were playing. The
dance was called Loose Time and the music Moving Spaces.
Finally, at the end of 2011, David Behrman, John King, Kosugi, and I were
each commissioned to make new pieces to make up the music for the company’s
last performances before disbanding, in New York, at the Park Avenue Armory.
I thought this a particularly generous gesture: for the music to be new as the
company’s dancing was closing down. My piece was Song for Six.

This text is a rewriting of one that was written in 2001 at the request of Benedicte Pesle, long-time
member of the Cunningham Dancer Company board and representative of the company
in France.
37

Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (2002)

The point, of course, is to listen. There’s no final information to be conveyed.


These notes offer some information but strictly speaking it’s not really relevant
to the experience of hearing the music. Listening to this music is like looking at
a star-filled night sky, anything else is material for an astronomy lesson.
Because this is a recording, how you listen can be various—all six hours at
one go or any subdivisions over varying times. The experience will be different
of course from attending a live performance. It’s somewhat more like looking at
a painting, which recalls Feldman’s well-known involvement with the visual arts.
One might keep in mind how utterly exceptional the experience of an unbroken
six hour live performance would be.
John Cage once murmured after a performance of Feldman’s Crippled
Symmetry, lasting over an hour and a half, why does it have to be so long? Once
in response to this question, Feldman told about the sculptor Henry Moore
who, being asked why he had turned to making such large sculptures, answered
that having had some financial success he could now afford to make bigger pieces.1
This typically somewhat sidesteps the question, but does show that Feldman
was well aware of the connections of art and social and economic matters,
though strongly insisting on art as the final point of reference.
The making of very long pieces started with String Quartet No. 1 in 1979.
About this piece I overheard Feldman say in the course of a heated discussion,
“it’s a fucking masterpiece.” That was his intent, to make, within the most venerated

1
References to Feldman’s remarks about String Quartet No.2 come from a program note reprinted
in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, edited by B.H. Friedman,
published by Exact Change, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, and Morton Feldman Essays, edited by Walter
Zimmermann, Beginners Press, Kerpen (Germany), 1985. The latter includes a transcript of an ex-
tended talk by Feldman at the Darmstadt Summer New Music courses on the occasion of a perfor-
mance of the quartet. The note and the talk are good examples of Feldman dealing with a mix of
feeling that the music’s sense cannot be verbalized and his evident pleasure in talking, sometimes at
length. There are also a number of incidental comments on the quartet in the section called “The
Future of Local Music” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street.

229
230 occasional pieces

classic chamber music genre, a demonstration of compositional mastery (there’s


a long tradition of this in Western art). And this called for large scale, and a move
into new territory. Feldman, like all really good composers, is an experimentalist.
The greatly expanded scale or length is the experiment, a new notion of what can
make musical form. Working on such a scale is also an exceptional composi-
tional challenge: how do you keep the music going? How to maintain musical
focus at every single moment over such a long time?
One source for Feldman’s aesthetic was the early music of Webern—very short,
intensely focused pieces. It’s one of the paradoxes of Feldman’s music to have
taken that concentration in a small space, also characteristic of much of his own
early work, and to have it transformed it without losing its particularity, over
very long durations. The main formal procedure is repetition, usually with slight
variation (one could say a demonstration of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s
saying that you can never step into the same river twice: you can never hear the
same sound in just the same way; the French poet René Char said, “an act is virgin,
even repeated”). For this to work repetition has to happen in such a way that it’s
not predictable; the listener can’t find herself thinking, “look, there’s a pattern of
repetition.” You can’t be thinking about compositional procedure because when
you do you’re not really listening anymore. The music is about sound, not about
how the sound got to be the way it is. (That’s not to say that how it got to be the
way it is is not interesting. We’re always wondering: how does he do it?)
The extreme durations of Feldman’s late pieces are also a provocation, di-
rected at musical institutions. Though the music’s length can be accommodated
more or less on recordings, recording was, as far as I know, of no interest to
Feldman. Written for live performance, these pieces are impossible for any con-
ventional concert situation. They challenge it and by extension the social world
it represents. There are paradoxes here too. The music represents denial, abnega-
tion, and isolation, but Feldman himself was most sociable and gregarious. The
music is aggressively provocative, but its sound is completely without aggres-
sion, in fact it is exquisitely beautiful, seductive. It’s both politically oppositional
and aesthetically altogether pure. The aesthetic purity is balanced by how we
must experience it. Another paradox: the sensuous beauty requires of the lis-
tener a concentration of listening that cannot possibly be sustained unbroken
over its extreme durations. You could say, that inevitable break of attention is
what makes the beautifulness of the music acceptable or endurable. Our capaci-
ties for real attention are being tested, and may experience transformation.2

2
In the essay “After Modernism” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street Feldman says: “a certain sensa-
tion begins to emerge: a sensation that we are not looking at the painting, but the painting is looking
at us.” This recalls Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which says of the statue that it would “break
beyond all its edges/Like a star: for there is no place/That does not see you. You must change your life.”
Feldman’s Str ing Q u ar tet No. 2 ( 2002) 231

Feldman did not compose with a predetermined plan except for the, to him
crucial, initial instrumental choice of the string quartet and the extended length
of the piece. (That this was a second quartet must also have determined him to
go beyond the first.) The extended length would determine the kind of material
to be used and the pacing of its use. The longer the piece, he used to say, the less
material you start with. The less you give yourself to work with, the more you can
focus and find the varieties of its use. And this focus staves off the distractions of
vague emotion and the grander compositional ideas. You try to have the music
write itself. Of course you know what you’re doing, but you work as close as pos-
sible to the experience of hearing the music for the first time.
In the 1970s, Feldman took up the study and collecting of antique Turkish
rugs, a highly evolved and exquisite folk art. The rugs are intricately patterned,
symmetrical in basic design but with constant variation and displacement in the
detailed execution of that design, and strikingly and subtly colored, including
fine variegations of principal colors resulting from the dyeing process. Analogies
are clear to Feldman’s music as it takes up large-scale patterning, partly working
with his familiar subtle gradations of rhythm and instrumental color and osti-
nati, loops or extended repetitions of a sound or sound configuration, partly—
and especially in this second string quartet—continually finding new and sur-
prising qualities of color (there are a number of sounds in this piece unlike
anything one has heard from a string quartet).
As with all of Feldman’s later work, the score of String Quartt No. 2 is written
on a fixed grid: 124 pages, each page having always the same three systems of
nine bars each (so always twenty-seven bars to a page). Much of the time the
musical material fits those spaces, of one page or one or two systems on the page.
A few times material extends over a number of pages, occasionally it takes up
only part of a system. This grid, as fixed as the structure of a weaving loom, is
defined by just one tempo, slightly variable: one quarter-note equal to slightly
less than one second (that is, 63–66 beats per minute), as such a slow tempo. But
the grid is used altogether fluidly because Feldman idiosyncratically sets the
bars, though all of exactly equal length in space, in almost continually changing
meters, continually reshaping the rhythm. The shortest metrical space in the
piece, 1/8 or half the length of the tempo beat, takes up the same visual space as
the longest, 11/4 or eleven beats, twenty-two times the duration of the shortest.
One page of the score, then, may last as little as about half a minute or as much
as nearly seven minutes. The visual, spatial layout of the score is transformed by
the movement of the sounds, and Feldman is in effect not writing in a tempo or
various tempos but composing the tempos as he goes along.
As for the overall, general form of the piece, Feldman has said that it’s not syn-
tactical, there’s no directional logic as in a sentence or story line. The music is an
“assemblage,” a collection of parts, accumulated and arranged by an intuitive
232 occasional pieces

process (the exact final number of pages was certainly not foreseen). There are
affinities here to Satie and Stravinsky. And though there is no linear or even
global grammar here, there is certainly an unmistakably distinctive language.
To analyze this music can only be provisional, pretty much a process of de-
scription. It depends on how you see the categories of the music’s material, the
kinds of things that happen. The piece starts with just four repeated pitches, each
a semitone apart from the next, that’s one kind of pattern; at the same time dy-
namics are varying with every sound, another distinctive pattern (there are just
six dynamics specified throughout the whole piece, apart from occasional cre-
scendo or decrescendo markings: 𝆑𝆑𝆑, 𝆑, 𝆐𝆑, 𝆐𝆏, 𝆏𝆏𝆏, 𝆏𝆏𝆏𝆏𝆏; the quietest of these,
as in all of Feldman’s music, by far predominate). Other patterns that come early:

a) A “broken” chord, individual entrances of each of the four instruments and


then a sustaining of the four sounds together.
b) A three-one pattern, three instruments making a chord and a fourth (often
the cello, playing pizzicato) coming after with a single sound. This happens
on at least fifteen pages, including in the latter part of the piece, in continuous
runs up to four pages lasting between ten and twelve minutes each.
c) Chords played by all four instruments together, like a chorale, on over twenty
pages, including a sequence of seven pages (pages 90–96), almost thirty-eight
minutes of music, followed by five more pages (between pages 110 and 119),
the latter sequence with occasional changes on the surface of an all but un-
varying movement (unvarying in general feeling but actually continually
varied very slightly in pitch and sound lengths). One such change, an almost
distinctive marker, is a quick four-note rising figure played twice, pizzicato, in
the first violin. This happens once on each of six pages (between 93 and 119).
Another such marker, with somewhat more presence, is a rising four-note
figure in close intervals followed by a falling four-note figure in the open
�interval of a fourth, three times over the nine-bar system, and through a con-
tinuously sustained cello harmonic (the longest single sound in the piece).
This happens seven times, the first five distributed, after the first twenty-one
minutes of the piece, over its next hour, then fifty minutes later it comes back,
and then one last time after thirty more minutes, about halfway through the
piece’s six hours. The material is very slightly varied at each repetition, not
really noticeably for the listener, but thus representing always an active focus,
first in the composing and then the playing. The repetition is never auto-
matic, and the pacing and shifting contexts of the material’s reappearances
continually alter how we hear it.

Another pattern has the cello oscillating between two notes a whole tone
apart, in harmonics and in high register, while the other three instruments
Feldman’s Str ing Q u ar tet No. 2 ( 2002) 233

�
together play a repeated chord (which changes once), mostly under the cello.
A full page of this occurs first seventeen minutes into the piece, then twice more
within the next hour, in the first of these recurrences the cello slows down in the
last system and plays only the first of its two notes; after about another hour,
again, only the cello plays its two notes a half step lower and the viola joins at the
octave below; this again, an hour later for one system and with a different accom-
panying chord; finally, some two and three-quarter hours later, on the last page
of the score, for the sixth time, the pattern reappears in its original form (heard
first over five hours earlier), for three systems, but in the third and last system of
the entire piece the cello slows down and plays in three two-bar phrases each
followed by a measure of silence, five beats long, then six, then, the last bar of the
piece, seven.
The marked patterns, of which there are various others, can be distinctive
enough to stir the memory when they reappear (this is not at all like repetitions
in a standard, say, ABA structure where you hear the recurrence of A as fulfilling
the structure). The scale of the piece and the unpredictable spacing of (near)
repetition causes the marked patterns to be like memory traces. When you sense
or perceive them the effect is close to what Proust regards as the true working of
memory, which is not what is willfully recalled but a spontaneous reemergence
of moments, triggered contingently in the immediacy of the present, of the later
phases of an ongoing life.
Overall, the music tends toward increasingly extended equilibrium and still-
ness, a kind of simplification. Just about all the music’s material, its ideas, come
in about the first hour, after which they reverberate and shift about. Changes of
dynamic, for instance, are indicated for the last time on page 76. The last dy-
namic specified there, for the entire rest of the piece, is the quietest—𝆏𝆏𝆏𝆏𝆏—
except for decrescendo markings. The music gradually breathes its last, it expires,
like the end of Satie’s Socrate. The structural procedure of assemblage is after all
finally caught up in the suggestion of a story.

On the duration of the performance


The title page of the score of String Quartet No.2 gives the piece’s duration as 3½
to 5½ hours, presumably Feldman’s rough estimate before he had experienced a
performance. A recording by the Ives Ensemble runs just under five hours. This
recording by the FLUX Quartet (who have also, incidentally, played the piece in
concert) is a bit over six hours. Feldman’s estimate appears to be casual and sub-
jective. I don’t think he ever imagined a performance with cuts. If the piece is
played at the slower tempo option (the tempo is given as a quarter note = 63–66)
it would be about fifteen minutes longer than at the fastest option. Listening to
234 occasional pieces

some of the five-hour version and then the six-hour one, I cannot really hear any
difference in the feeling of the time. The clock time that could be calculated from
the score is inevitably transformed into an experience, or succession of experi-
ences, of time, concretely embodied in the performance and, differently, in the
listening. The timing of the performance is determined at least in large part by
the kind of attention the players want to give to the making of the sound, espe-
cially, at the very low dynamic levels, to the causing of the sounds to speak
clearly. As for any piece of music there is no definitive fixed clock time duration
(not even for John Cage’s 4′33″, which, in the hearing at least, seems to some to
pass in a moment, to others to last an eternity).

Liner notes written in 2002 for the Flux Quartet’s recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet
No. 2 on Mode 112.
38

Earle Brown—Chamber Music (2004)

Folio, a collection of seven pieces written between October 1952 and March
1953, is historically Earle Brown’s most striking work. It was done after, at John
Cage’s suggestion, coming to New York where he joined Cage, Morton Feldman,
David Tudor, and myself. Though rather different in our particular ways, we were
associated by our overall difference from the other music being done in the United
States at the time, by our interest in and contacts with the then emerging European
avant-garde, especially Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as Edgar Varèse, by our
admiration of the music of Webern and by our usually being performed together,
in many cases by David Tudor and in concerts organized by John Cage.
Five of Folio’s pieces call for the use of a piano—because of Tudor; two have
open instrumentation—because access to performers at that time was very lim-
ited. Later, Brown welcomed open instrumentation for the whole set, as on this
recording. Compositionally, the music is a mix that was to continue throughout
Brown’s work: material based on serial or twelve-tone pitch relations with me-
lodic gestures and sometimes textures akin to Webern and, the conceptual origin
of Brown’s later fluid and mobile formal procedures, the introduction of the
most radical graphic notations to be devised up to that time. Compared with
Cage, Feldman, and myself, Brown seemed then both more traditionally based,
with the twelve-tone pitch material, and with the graphic scores, more extreme
(Feldman’s earlier graph notated pieces are not so much “graphic”—that is, images
that do not in themselves contain a specific method or logic for their sonic reali-
zation—as another kind of musical notation.)
There was also in Brown’s background jazz, which he had played and in which
at least for a while into the fifties he had maintained an active interest, and math-
ematics, which he had studied (along with engineering) and which may have been
what led him to study and for a time to teach the methods of Joseph Schillinger.
Schillinger had worked out a system of arithmetical formulas for composing
music and for analyzing it, also coordinating it with the visual arts. (Surprisingly,
Schillinger’s most notable pupils were popular musicians like George Gershwin
and Glenn Miller.) Whether or not Schillinger’s comprehensive schemes

235
236 occasional pieces

�
including music and art were involved, Brown also came to New York already
�familiar with and very much taken by the work of Alexander Calder and
Jackson Pollock.
The Folio pieces include a range of indeterminate or, as Brown would later
identify them, mobile elements. October 1952 is conventionally notated except
for the absence of bar lines, rests, and tempo indication, hence an unspecified or
absent feeling of pulse, and movement through time is chosen and realized di-
rectly in performance, though individual rhythmic configurations (indications
of shorter and longer sounds) are given and identify melodic gestures. November
1952 locates thirty-three notations of specified duration (quarter notes, dotted
eighths, etc.) and dynamics over the space of a fifty-line stave. Instructions spec-
ify only that the stave grid be read so as to accommodate the pitch range of what-
ever instrument is playing. Movement through time, overall time of the piece,
the sequence in which notes are played and their possible vertical alignment
�(simultaneous playing) are left open, that is, melodic gestures are not defined.
Since the fifty-line stave implies a hundred pitches (notes are on or above lines),
which is already a dozen more than on a piano keyboard, not to mention the
range of, say, a flute or trumpet, the reading of the notes will need otherwise
unspecified procedures to make pitch choices possible.
December 1952 is visually the famous one: thirty-one horizontal and vertical
lines of varying thickness (one is a small square), distributed freely over a space
of more or less 11 × 17 inches. Some say the visual impression suggests Mondrian.
One might think also of Malevich. But Brown refused to see the score as any-
thing other than a score. It is visually elegant but intended simply to be func-
tional musically. Unlike any painting it might recall, it neither has nor implies
a frame, and there’s no visual tension between surface and possible depth (even
though Brown imagined a three-dimensional scheme for the resulting sound).
The notation indicates a musical reading that floats in time. It is, in fact, a varia-
tion of November 1952 with the grid lines left out and the shapes pointing to
duration, density, and degrees of loud and soft. Both pieces have about the same
number of notations (thirty-three and thirty-one), to be read in any sequence,
direction, and combination. The instructions for December 1952 do suggest
that  the performer(s) not prepare the details of the realization of the score
before the moment of actual performance. They make explicit the potential for
improvisation within the score’s terms.
The next two pieces, identified only by their metronome markings, are like
October 1952 without bar lines or rests indicated but otherwise fully notated in
the conventional way, including a tempo. Both, like November 1952 and 1953,
have continually changing dynamics for almost all individual sounds (a prac-
tice of the European avant-garde of the early 1950s, partially picked up in the
United States).
Earl e B row n — Chambe r Mus i c ( 2004) 237

Trio for Five Dancers ( June 1953) looks like an occasional piece. Brown
�describes it as a transcription of spatial notations of a dance by Carolyn Brown.
It’s like a performance realized as a composition, using an external given as its
notation. 1953 (these dates are strictly speaking not titles but signatures at the
bottom of the scores, as though marking diary entries) is a page that introduces
on paired staves, as though for keyboard, what Brown called time notation, dura-
tions indicated not by the usual notational symbols (that are usually further
�ordered into metrical shapes with an underlying pulse) but, both more directly
and more ambiguously, by the lengths of extended lines, that is, as if note heads
are extended visibly for the length of their duration. A virtue of this notation
(which was to be widely adopted by others) is that it makes especially clear the
relations of individual sounds, or sound masses, to one another, the ways and
extent they relate vertically. Evolving sound complexes are represented transpar-
ently, and so may be thought of and played in those terms rather than according
to a notational image that is linear or represents the counterpoint of lines. The
notation can be read either end up (the way December 1952 can be read from
any of its four sides), a literal, visual application of the common musical practice
of inversion. In addition staves may be read freely in either treble or bass clef,
which allows the unpredictable possibility of displacing Brown’s usual chromatic
(twelve tone) pitch patterns.
These innovations carry over to Twenty-Five Pages, music for one to twenty
five pianos from 1953, for which 1953 was a preliminary study, and to Four
Systems. (The idea of a rhythmic or durational notation represented by location
in space on the score page did first appear in Cage’s Music for Changes in 1951,
but to supplement a conventional rhythmic notation that had become too com-
plex to be normally manageable. In the cycle Music for Piano in 1953, Cage
simply notates the entrance of a sound, without further specification, by its loca-
tion in space.) Four Systems uses the December 1953 notation, but much more
densely, the piece originally made as a birthday present for David Tudor and
evidently looking to his virtuosity.
Corroboree comes ten years after Four Systems in 1964, a German commission
(Radio Bremen), dedicated to the Kontarsky brothers, three pianists specializ-
ing in new music, mostly European (Stockhausen’s Mantra was written for Aloys
and Alfons). By the late 1950s, Brown had become well established in Europe
independently of the interest there in, and very mixed reactions to, Cage. This
was due in part to sympathetic personal relationships with European musicians,
and perhaps because of the basis of some of Brown’s material in serial proce-
dures, the only ones admitted as viable by the European avant-garde at the time.
The title Corroboree, though, refers to Australian aborigine celebrational dancing
or “any large or noisy celebration.” Pitch is for the most part specifically notated,
and sometimes approximately, as part of visually represented sound gestures for
238 occasional pieces

clusters, or plucking and muting of the piano strings. The details of rhythmic
articulations are free, as is the distribution of sounds over approximately fixed
time frames. Each pianist proceeds independently within those frames (so there
is no fixed score). Sometimes dynamics are free as well. Amidst these flexibilities
the players are urged to make their performing choices with an ear to one an-
other, that is, when improvising an aspect of the music, to do so as an ensemble.
The structure of this piece is a scaffolding of twelve parts, time frames of from
30 to 120 seconds, each frame characterized by the kind or kinds of material
�appearing in it. There are eight such kinds, e.g., forearm clusters, muted strings,
strings plucked with fingernail, single keyboard notes, etc. There are a few sug-
gestions of overall structural shaping. Two of the twelve time frames are left
open for the players to choose any material from anywhere else in the piece,
a kind of fragmented free recapitulation or anticipations. One of these frames
follows after the piece’s first frame, the other precedes the last. The last frame
includes material repeated exactly from the first and eighth frames. Generally,
though, the form of the piece is shaped by the ongoing variation and distribution
of its material, over varying segments of time, in various combinations and jux-
tapositions. The continuous rearrangement of a limited set of materials recalls
the mobiles of Calder. And there are analogies to Pollock. Brown speaks of his
materials as colors; the gestures of the sounds, and sometimes their appearance
on the score, are like brush strokes and regulated dripping of paint. Brown had
spoken of wanting to compose with the directness and immediacy of a perform-
ing improviser (performing as in jazz, with some formal framework), with the
immediacy, one might also say, of a painter putting paint to canvas. This analogy
to painting may be distinguished from one made for Feldman. Brown’s gestures
are like the direct application of paint, in particular strokes, lines, and. loops,
overlaid and intertwining, as in Pollock. For Feldman, gesture is not the main
thing. What really matters is a sustained feeling of surface, apparently flat yet
generating a kind of glow, as in Rothko or some of Guston.
Tracking Pierrot (1992) is for a chamber ensemble like Schoenberg’s Pierrot
Lunaire (1912)—flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, and, instead of voice, percus-
sion (marimba and vibraphone). There are procedures like those of Corroboree.
Eight categories of material are disposed over eleven pages of score, each page a
structural unit or frame. The time frames, though, are now determined not by
clock time but fluidly, by the many improvised choices of a conductor who may
also specify dynamics, tempo, and which subdivisions of the ensemble play and
in what combinations. Much of the material is repeatable, partly at the choice
of the performers and overridingly by the free determinations of the conductor.
This role for conductor as a kind of active performer, making of a piece its partic-
ular one-time realization at any given performance, was devised first by Brown
in  1961 for the orchestra pieces Available Forms 1 & 2 (the latter using two
Earl e B row n — Chambe r Mus i c ( 2004) 239

c� onductors, making a kind of improvisation duo). In Tracking Pierrot, the return
of previously heard material is more transparent than in Corroboree. The piece
begins and ends with the same patch of material, which is unlike anything else in
the piece. Another distinctive kind of material, quiet, noise-like non-specifically
pitched sounds, appears after the first two pages of the piece and before the last
two. The piece also has, unusually for Brown, an assortment of referential items
making collage-like appearances. The opening and closing material, delicate and
transparent, is a hommage to Morton Feldman. A three-times recurring sequence
of pairs of overlaid dominant seventh chords (a chord that’s a cliché of pop
music), played on the piano, follows a procedure worked out by Schillinger. And
a sequence of lush chords played by the winds and strings refers to Messiaen
(whose harmonies are felt by some to be “in unbelievably bad taste”). One may
recall that Schoenberg’s Pierrot was itself an odd mix of avant-garde writing and
suggestions of Berlin cabaret.
The materials of Earle Brown’s music are close to what has become one of the
standard languages of a great deal of contemporary music since the 1970s. But
the music itself maintains its originary status and persists in its sense of freedom
and a distinctive lightness and transparency. And there’s always a fine sense of
instrumental sonority and a feeling for formal procedures whose particular real-
izations—a given performance—convey both their particularity and the poten-
tial of their mobility—the range of their possible realizations. Not quite this but
something surely related is indicated by what Feldman once wrote: “The late
Edgar Varèse once spoke about the time sound needs in order to speak. Very few
composers have understood this thought. No one has understood it better than
Earle Brown.”

Liner notes for Earle Brown—Chamber music, Matchless Recordings MRCD 52 (2003).
39

Some Notes on Charles Ives and


Politics (2004)

General points of reference: Ives’s music, Ives’s politics, our music (in 2004), our
politics. Politics: actual conditions of social life and relations of power. Aesthetic
practices, for music: how it may be written, performed, and publicly presented
and received. Musical practices may, with varying degrees of self-awareness, be
forms of certain social ways of acting. A verbal text in a work of music may be
explicitly political, though what, if any, political point it may convey will depend
on the particular context of the music’s performance. An individual musician’s
own political ideas or convictions may or may not be an explicit part of her
�musical activity.
Ives’s case, as I understand it (and I’m not an Ives scholar), looks rather
Â�complicated. His writings (I’m drawing mostly on the collection Essays Before
a Sonata and Other Writings, selected and edited by H. Boatwright, New York,
1964) bristle with politically related thoughts. For most of his life, Ives was ac-
tively involved with political issues of his time, particularly the movement for
“national direct democracy,” a call for nationwide voting (as in a presidential elec-
tion) on political issues of major importance. He himself drafted a proposed con-
stitutional amendment to this effect that he sent to the national convention of the
Republican party (he intended also to send one to the Democratic Party’s conven-
tion; he was indifferent to party politics). This was not just his own quixotic proj-
ect but one with considerable support throughout the United States starting in
the late nineteenth century. It was revived, though also unsuccessfully, in the US
congress in the 1970s, last by Richard Gephart who this year (2004) was an un-
successful candidate for the presidential nomination. (I owe this information to
a good essay on Ives and the direct democracy movement by Judith Tick.)1
Just how to characterize Ives’s politics as a whole is not quite clear, but some
of its main themes are clear enough. Involved are a curious mix of more or less

1
In Ives Studies, ed., Ph. Lambert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 133–60.

241
242 occasional pieces

practical ideas with others that are almost purely visionary and utopian. There is
a strong critique of the power and political control exercised by means of the
wealth of individuals (for instance, nearly the entire US senate then as now is
made up of millionaires) and corporations, and thus the corruption of an alleg-
edly representative government where big money is what is being represented.
Ives believed in (and to some extent privately practiced) the redistribution of
wealth, in particular through taxation (as reformed) and limits on individual
�incomes. He promoted the use of insurance (his own professional activity) as
an economic equalizer for the population as a whole. He saw war as about prof-
its for a minority propertied (and usually not personally at risk) class. In the
context of Ives’s own social world these were unusually independent and quite
radical views, which are related to a vein of rural and working class radicalism in
the United States emerging in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
There are contradictions. Ives’s objection to war on the grounds of its eco-
nomic exploitation did not prevent his patriotic support of the US involvement
in World War I. He repeatedly states his faith in “the minds and souls of the
people,” the masses, and is concerned about economic equality. Yet there is a
curious lack of reference to actual struggles going on around him of working-
class upheavals, including, for example, the widely publicized strike in New
England at the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, a remarkable
demonstration of mass expression, political and—with its songs, speeches, and
poems—musical and literary. Ives’s political views and his reformist projects are
strong, but they are grounded in and mixed with pervasive, latter nineteenth-
century New England transcendentalist sentiments. He shows no interest in the 
next generation (which is his own) of thinkers. A figure like John Dewey, a widely
known—socially aware “experimental pragmatist,” might seem to be congenial
to Ives, but he is never mentioned. Similarly, Ives’s writings don’t much engage
with his musical contemporaries either, with the exception of his  friend Carl
Ruggles. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, for instance, are hardly noticed.
There’s a strong populist strain in Ives’s political thinking, which is repre-
sented in his music by the incorporation of popular and familiar older music and
elements of everyday, ordinary music making (bands, church choirs, informal
popular and folk playing and singing). On the other hand, his music as a whole
can hardly be regarded as populist (possible exceptions might be the violin so-
natas, which he sometimes dismisses as secondary efforts, and the third sym-
phony). There’s a mix, going back and forth between accessible idioms and
�experimental ones. Perhaps the underlying impulse, which is closest to an exper-
imental side, is Ives’s desire to make his music gritty, resistant to accommodation
to anything that might be, in Brecht’s term, “culinary,” tasteful, or sweet. He wants to
improve his listeners, to draw the best out of them, and also to draw them out of
themselves toward a contemplative, visionary state. Three of his major works,
Some Note s on Charl e s Ive s and Poli ti c s ( 2004) 243

the Concord Sonata, the second string quartet and the fourth symphony, all end
in a visionary mode, with a sound combining the movement of quiet harmonic
suspension with ostinato figures at once persisting and unassertive or accepting,
a distinctive Ivesian sound, meant to evoke being at peace before a vital manifes-
tation of nature. This is a kind of resolution, but only after, and with the persist-
ing memory of, high-energy references to various and contrary manifestations of
human social life (the “Hawthorn” movements of the sonata and symphony and
the second movement, “Arguments,” of the string quartet).
Politics, political ideology, the relations of power in a society are inevitably
implicated in aesthetics, but the relation is always complicated because of the
irreducible subjectivity of aesthetics, both at its source—the makers and per-
formers of the art work—and at its point of reception, the audience. Ives is well
aware of the latter (see “Essays,” pp. 70 and 125).
I continue with and partially return to Ivesian themes in the writings and
their contradictions or tensions, which make a driving force or, perhaps, a kind
of dialectic, in his thinking.
What is really “musical” for Ives: no routines, no easy listening (or at least not
for long). No repetition (“The initial coherence may be dullness tomorrow, prob-
ably because formal or outward unity depends so much on repetition, sequences,
antitheses, paragraphs, with inductions and summaries” (“Essays,” p. 23); Ives is
looking to a piece of music’s durability over time). The stirring up of an energy
that comes from having to listen actively. I mentioned grittiness, Ives speaks
of “mud” (he happens to be defending Brahms’s orchestration). “The mud may
be a form of sincerity which demands that the heart be translated.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›A clearer
scoring might have lowered the thought” (“Essays,” p. 22).
This is not of course an invitation to chaos or anarchy, nor complexity for its
own sake. It’s a claim for “content” in music, an idea (not about form as such), a
feeling, which mustn’t be simplified, all of whose facets, turns, and quirks should
be allowed to emerge, something serious (though humor is not ruled out). This
“content,” furthermore, is not static but in continual process of movement and
evolution. Like music itself it moves along and changes through time. Sometimes
the content is simply programmatic—in the song, “Majority,” about the masses,
there are huge cluster chords with masses of notes in them—but usually it’s
�impossible to verbalize (the content is fully in the music).
Ives has a sense of mission for music, a sense that the music must be “engaged.”
What is the mission? One could say improvement, what Marxist aesthetics called
“raising the level” in human culture. For Ives there is a necessary moral content
in aesthetics (this is something that will then turn up in John Cage). His moral
sense includes and is thought to be realized through his ideas about the politics
of democracy. Raising the level is for everyone, the masses—whom Ives emphati-
cally distinguishes from the minority propertied class, what he calls the greedy
244 occasional pieces

minority “hog mind.” (One should recall that Ives himself became, through his
talent for business in insurance, quite wealthy. He was a free-thinking member of
the propertied class. And he was generous with his money, especially in aid of
other contemporary music and composers.)
It need hardly be said that Ives has no use for any notion of “art for art’s sake,”
which he takes to be a fetishizing of a merely hedonistic and surface notion
of beauty.
In Ives’s dualities one side will outweigh the other. Content is preferred to
form; content absorbs form, but perhaps may also be expressed by it. Form could
be seen as Ives’s musical experimentation and content is what validates the
Â�experimentation. Ives defends Emerson’s writing style—his form: he “wrote by
sentences and phrases rather than by logical sequences. His underlying plan
of work seems based on the larger unity of a series of particular aspects of a
subject rather than on the continuity of expression” (“Essays,” p. 22). So with “sub-
stance” and “manner” or style. “Substance can be expressed in music, and that is
the only valuable thing in it (the music).” Substance “has something to do with
character” (“Essays,” p. 76), that is, individual moral quality. A bit mysteriously,
Ives says that “substance leans towards optimism, and manner, pessimism” (this
in a comparison of Emerson to Edgar Allen Poe). And similarly, soul or intui-
tion is raised above reason, and depth above surface, though reason and sur-
face are not neglected: Ives likes to argue in writing, and he has a feeling for
the phenomenal—his inventive use of instruments and, especially, of rhythmic
�instrumentation shows that.
Prominent in the writings are commitments to the vernacular and eclecti-
cism, closely tied to the idea of democracy. Of Emerson Ives says “the higher
(he) soars, the more lowly he becomes,” and quotes him: “do you think the
porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you?”
And he (Ives) suggests that “Debussy’s content would have been worthier if
he  had hoed corn or sold newspapers for a living, for in this way he might
have gained a deeper vitality and truer theme to sing at night and of a Sunday”
(“Essays,” pp. 32, 82). Interesting in the latter is the implication that composing
should be an avocation, or at least one activity among other more ordinary and
practical ones, part of an eclecticism of work. Ives expresses an astonishing opti-
mism about the democratic masses and their capacities, for life, politics, and art,
if given opportunity. He speaks of the courage to believe in “the innate goodness
of mankind” (“Essays,” p. 28). This is related to the metaphysics of nineteenth-
century transcendentalism, but Ives also is able to evoke utopian strains of
Â�socialism, as in the text he wrote for the song “Majority,” which opens the collec-
tion he made of his songs: “The Masses have toiled—behold the works of the
world!â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The Masses are singingâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›whence comes the art of the world!â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›The
Masses are yearning—whence comes the hope of the World,” though this is then
Some Note s on Charl e s Ive s and Poli ti c s ( 2004) 245

again mixed in with an older religious sensibility: “The Masses are dreaming—
whence comes the visions of God.” So the mix of a feeling for vernacular values
and religion: “a vigor, a depth of feeling, a natural soil-rhythm, a sincerity, em-
phatic but inartisticâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›carries (the singer) nearer the ‘Christ of the people’ than
does the ‘Te Deum’ of the greatest cathedral” (“Essays,” p. 80). This is also a rural,
not urban vision.
Can all this be useful to us now, politically, aesthetically? I think Ives can serve
as one example of a musician who attempted to connect music with the life of his
time, as he perceived that time at the turn of the twentieth century, with no little
nostalgia for what came before but somehow also with a sense of experiment for
the future. In this way he takes his music seriously and with an awareness that a
traditional music culture can no longer be taken for granted. He is thoroughly
aware of and completely believes in a necessary interconnection of politics and a
world view with aesthetic issues.
For all the looking back and the utopianism, Ives still has a strong strain of
the experimental spirit in him. That spirit, which has recently and persuasively
been connected by Professor Rathert with the idea of potentiality and openness,
has both aesthetic consequences and a possible political dimension. It sustains
thinking in terms of change, musical and social. In the latter case in small,
modest, ordinary ways, but still change, and at least, however great the difficulty,
maintaining some sense of hope alive.

This is the text of a talk given in Berlin at the März Musik Festival in 2004.
40

On Day-to-Day Composing Work (2004)

The putting of pencil to paper is almost never foreseeable. I do it when I can,


when the rest of all that goes on allows it and when my mind seems alert enough
and the desire is there. It can happen at any time, anywhere. And then there are
also likely to be deadlines.
When you work, that’s all there is. But everything around you—what you’ve
seen, read, heard, whom you were with, talked with, thought about, what’s going
on in the world, politics—is still an inevitable grid on which you work. Say, the
war in Iraq, the poetry of John Ashbery, family members, Bach’s cantatas.
In the making of music, the notion of grid is there too. I try to operate with
ordinariness, something durable, usable and, in some sense, consistent, in the
hope (not calculation) of occasionally something special happening.
What’s ordinary may also be idiosyncratic. I’ve been very near-sighted in one
eye, the one I use for reading and writing. I’ve thought that this myopia was
related to my being particularly aware of and valuing close detail, and, when
looking at something as a whole, was related to seeing more easily larger shapes
or configurations. This combination of ways of seeing works in alternation, using
now one eye and then the other. I lack good depth perception and a sense of
middle distance. I’m about to have an operation on the short-sighted eye, to
make it normally far-sighted. Will this change how I can work with music?

This text was made at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and appeared in German translation in
MusikTexte 100, February, 2004.

247
41

Remembering Grete Sultan (2005)

Grete Sultan, after a horrendous escape from Berlin in 1941, came to New York
at nearly the same time as my parents and I (age seven). We settled on Washington
Square, she, at 17th Street just off Fifth Avenue, about a fifteen-minute walk away,
on the second floor of a loft building. Merce Cunningham lived on the floor
above her. We met seven years later through a friend of my family, Katja Andy,
who along with Grete had been a student of Edwin Fischer. I was her piano stu-
dent for the next three years (another of her students was Lucia Dlugoszewski,
who also later became a composer).
When, in the spring of 1950, I began bringing to her attempts at composi-
tion—to make up for not practicing the piano enough—she sent me to her
friend John Cage, and so brought about a permanent transformation of my
�musical life.
Grete was extraordinarily patient with me and taught me, as I gradually real-
ized, more about what I would regard as important in music than anyone else,
other than, in other ways, John Cage. In particular, she taught me to pay atten-
tion to everything, to be precise and to listen to everything that I was doing. For
instance, to be aware of every aspect of a sound, never regarding anything as just
filler but considering each detail as having a life of its own. For example, distin-
guish clearly between an eighth note and a dotted eighth note. Pay as much at-
tention to where a sound stops as to where it starts. Take the music simply as it
is, not distracted by your own ideas and feelings.
Her musical background was thoroughly classical, beginning with Bach,
but she also played contemporary music. She had me play Schoenberg, along
with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. When she started working on John Cage’s
Music of Changes, Cage decided that slamming down the piano lid, called for
in the later part of the piece, was not appropriate for Grete. And so he wrote
for her the monumental Etudes Australes. When I heard her play these, it
brought to mind that aspect of John’s work that one could describe as
“classical.”

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250 occasional pieces

She was a quiet, modest person, but firm and with strong integrity. Like John,
she was, without any strain or fuss, a model of discipline and devotion.

This was written in 2004 and appeared in German translation in, MusikTexte 106, August, 2005.
42

On Music with Cunningham Events (2008)

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company Events are always different. They are
made up of ad hoc collages of material from dances in the repertory. They
�originated as site-specific (and sometimes still are), for unconventional venues,
outdoor locations, gymnasia, museum spaces, and the like.
Since the dance material is variable at each performance, the music too can be
always different. Two general procedures have been followed for the music. First,
some pre-existing music is used, for instance, a John Cage string quartet lasting
thirty minutes, for a thirty-minute Event; or Meredith Monk performing a se-
quence of her songs for the given length of an Event; and I once played seventy
minutes of my piano music for an Event of seventy minutes.
Otherwise, and more recently and usually, a group of musicians improvises.
These will be experienced improvisers, among whom one might mention Keith
Rowe, Christian Marclay, John Tilbury, Ikue Mori, George Lewis, and Steve Lacy,
also the musicians making up the dance company’s music committee: Takehisa
Kosugi, John King, David Behrman, and myself.
As is usual for Merce Cunningham dances, the music has its own independ-
ent presence. It doesn’t accompany the dance so much as co-exist with it (in any
case, the musician normally play in the orchestra pit from which they can barely,
if at all, see what the dancers are doing). The improvised music could stand by
itself and be simply part of a concert presentation. Like the dance Event, always
different and new, the music when improvised will also be each time something
not yet heard before.

Written in 2008 when David Vaughan, the Cunningham Dance Company �archivist, asked for a
text on music with Events.

251
43

Some Recollections of Arthur


Russell (2009)

What can I tell you? There are many blurs in my memory. How did we meet and
where? I have the impression that Arthur introduced himself, maybe by phone,
and came up to Hanover, New Hampshire, where I had moved with my family in
1971. I remember his telling me about having studied composition with Charles
Wuorinen, which surprised me because Arthur’s interest in John Cage and the
music around him, including mine, was difficult to square with that. Arthur
did say that Wuorinen, a strict and exclusive serialist and seriously uptown com-
poser, had given him a hard time. Arthur must have been looking for more con-
genial musical company. Or rather he was just looking, which he seemed to do
continuously.
Every so often he would telephone from New York, reporting and self-�
questioning about the scenes in New York he was involved in and his work, also
his trying to survive making a minimal living. I don’t recall particulars of our
conversations, just the feeling of searching, and sometimes being pleased at
having found something that worked for himself and some listeners. Why did he
talk to me? He admired John Cage, who was in the New York area, but maybe he
found me, off in New Hampshire though I was, more accessible. At the time my
own work was taking an explicitly political turn as well as trying to loosen up
from a rather pure and, I came to think, too esoteric experimentalism—to be
sure, in the character of its sound rather than in the collaborative processes of
performance that it involved. That seemed to interest Arthur (though, in fact, he
also liked the spare, undramatic earlier work).
When I met Arthur early minimalism (Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass)
had got going, and for some of us was a breath of fresh air after the tiring com-
plexities of serial music and extended instrumental techniques (Luciano Berio,
etc.), and classical music pastiche writing (George Rochberg, etc.)—on the one
hand a sense of forced efforts to complicate things, on the other a kind of regres-
sive nostalgia. In the art world there had been the shift away from abstraction to

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254 occasional pieces

pop and representational painting, but somehow without the historical bag-
gage the musicians insisted on hauling about. Riley, Reich, Glass had each
been affected by involvements with musics outside the orbit of Western con-
cert music—classical Indian music, Ghanian drumming, Indonesian gamelan.
Technically, this led in the direction of diatonic (that is, neither the systemati-
cally chromatic procedures of serialism nor the traditional harmonic language
coming down from Romantic music) writing (or improvising), and a steadily
pulsed rhythm. These are features shared with pop music. So also the use of
electric instruments, synthesizers, electric organs, and amplification of standard
instruments. And composers forming their own ensembles to play their music
(not depending on the existing handful of new music performance groups). The
aim too was to make a music accessible beyond the more or less exclusive and
closed circle of the existing new music scene. These social as well as musical moves
must have affected Arthur. He crossed over into a music outside the givens of
“new music” and its concert life—as did others including Rhys Chatham, Glenn
Branca, Garrett List, John Zorn.
I liked Arthur because of his genuineness and musical openness. I wasn’t a fan
of disco (actually at the time I was hardly aware of its existence) but Arthur’s
Â�engaging with it and doing his take on it I thought interesting. Periodically he’d
send his LPs (I recently turned up “Pop your Funk & Is it all over My face?”).
He played cello, and he must have talked to me about playing my music, be-
cause he gave me confidence to ask him to join a kind of floating band I had
in New York, including Garrett List, Frederic Rzewski, Jon Gibson, and David
Behrman. We played a concert, I think in 1974, at the Kitchen, the first perfor-
mance of some of my “Exercises” series, along with some songs—straightfor-
ward unison singing, on political texts. Arthur was good for cello playing and
singing. The group was a mix of professional (really good) and amateur perform-
ers (David Behrman, Arthur, and myself in the latter category). The music is
open in the sense that, though it consists of melodic fragments in a single line, its
instrumentation is free as are many aspects of the playing—whether notes are
read in treble or bass clef, the tempo, details of rhythm, whether a player plays or
not, dynamics. Players are asked to play with reference to the idea of unison, but
observing unison in very varying degrees, in effect continually negotiating what
constitutes unison in the process of playing. The music comes as much out of
how the players are, individually and as a group, moved to do it as out of how it’s
written. Steve Reich came up afterward and said he now understood what the
music was about—it was street music. John Cage, also there, said it was like the
classical music of an unknown civilization. Arthur fit well into all that mix.
I remember also Arthur playing in a concert of my music organized by Nic
Collins at the Clock Tower, some years later, with a variety of downtowners,
�including Peter Zummo, John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Wayne Horwitz, and Dan Goode.
Some R ecol l ec tions o f A r thur R us s el l ( 2009) 255

I noticed Arthur’s playing having a clear and valuable presence, and at the same
time, amidst some of the hard-edged playing of the others, how self-effacing
he  was. My last memory is of his performing at a memorial concert for the
English avant-garde, turned political (and tonal) composer, Cornelius Cardew
in 1981. He and Ned Sublette chose, arranged, and sang, accompanied with
Arthur’s cello, two of Cardew’s political songs in a country-western style, which
was just right, strong and moving.

Written at the request of Artforum where it was published in the April, 2009 issue.
44

On Verbal Notation (2009)

I’ve called it prose composition. First did it in 1968 when travelling around
Britain doing talks about my music, mostly at art schools, wanting as much to do
that by having students (audience) trying to play the music as just myself talking
about it and playing it alone. At the art schools, though there were usually a
handful of guitarists, almost no one could read music, so verbal description of
what to do was the way to make the pieces performable, and accessible to “non-
musicians” (really a non-category: anyone could be a musician of some kind,
and may have some desire to make music).
That’s why first I used verbal “notation.” Actually all notation, verbal or (stand-
ard) visual-symbolic, is simply instructions for what and how to play. The latter,
when using grids (staves, measures or recurring metric spaces), allow a certain
kind of specificity. Words are different, in some sense less exact in specifying.
Words of course frequently accompany standard notation: indications of dynam-
ics (abbreviated, as for 𝆏, etc.); tempo or rhythmic feel (allegro, adagio, alla marcia,
etc.); expression (con forza, “tenderly”, etc.). Somewhere in between, as far as
specificity goes, are the notations for slurs, phrasing, attack (staccato, non-legato,
etc.), that are visual, though sometimes also indicated verbally.
Making compositions (scores) only out of words can include quite specific
prescriptions, especially if numbers are involved: e.g., make three simultaneous
sounds every two seconds. But generally, verbal instructions will be more inde-
terminate or open—or indeterminate and open in a different ways—than stand-
ard notation, another reason for my using them. Of course, standard notations
are full of indeterminacies as well—compare various performers understanding
of a non-legato notation, or of allegro, etc.
One could also ask, what is the specificity that is notated? The notation tells
you play C, F♯ and B at dynamic level 𝆏𝆏. That’s clear and specific enough, but the
musical sense? I tell you “make sounds with stones.” No pitch, duration, rhyth-
mic procedures, dynamics. But the piece is quite specific about the sound itself,
the stones—that will be its identity. To be sure, considerable stretching is possible.
Usually when the piece is played, though its overall durations is not specified, it

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258 occasional pieces

will run from five to ten minutes. There is though a recorded performance of
it that runs for an hour, including (because of an agreement among the perfor-
mance that each would make no more than fifteen sounds over the total time)
vast spaces of silence. Very different versions of the same score, but always the
specific identity of the performed sound of stones (only). This kind of variability
has long interested me, and the verbal scores are a way of realizing it. Also real-
izing it very economically—the score consists entirely of just maybe five or so
lines of prose.
My prose pieces generally involve instructions for particular tasks that result
in performed sound, within a restricted set of conditions that define a given
composition. Another kind of verbal composition is more purely suggestive—
more like “graphic” music, in the sense of providing the player with graphic
images that must be interpreted subjectively and turned into sounds (Cornelius
Cardew’s Treatise is a classic example). I first encountered examples of this in
LaMonte Young, then Cardew (I). I do it rarely, but the last section of Burdocks
consists of the words “Flying or possibly crawling or sitting still,” where the latter
two actions are literal instructions but the first may be taken “symbolically,” that
is, suggesting that one make sounds one imagines to represent some aspect of
flying, or one represents flying by a theatrical action that may not involve much
sound at all. My intent was, at the end of a longish and quite variously indeterminate
piece, to open it up in a different way, ending with the beginning of something
different.

Written in 2009 for John Lely and James Saunders, Word Events—Perspectives on Verbal Notation
(New York and London: Bloomsbury Continuum US, 2012).
45

Experimental Music around 1950 and


Some Consequences and Causes (2009)

To start with I’m going to rehearse a little history, for the sake of context—but
with a warning. This history—the music scene as I experienced it around 1950
and after, in which a new kind of music emerged—is hard to recount without
mixing what I remember of the time then and what I later found out. John Cage
once reported asking a historian how he did history, to which the historian
Â�answered, to Cage’s pleased astonishment, that he made it up.
There’s a comparable phenomenon in one’s hearing of music at longer time
intervals. It may well sound different, not necessarily better understood, but
really different. When we first heard Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata in
New York in 1952, we were overwhelmed—by its force and a complex intricacy
we hadn’t known could exist (Ives might have come closest but he wasn’t so
�utterly abstract). When I heard the piece again some twenty-five years later, it
sounded like another sonata in the great literature of piano sonatas, not so far,
I thought, from Brahms.
What could be heard in New York (where I was lucky enough to be growing
up) around 1950? The Bartók string quartets, performed entire for the first
time in the United States (Bartók had come in exile to New York in 1940 and
died in 1945). A program of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Schoenberg’s Fourth String
Quartet and Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet at Tanglewood in the
summer of 1948. All this thanks to the Juilliard String Quartet. Stravinsky’s
music for Balanchine’s Orpheus. Of course, a standard classical concert reper-
toire dominated completely, going no further back than Bach or Handel or
beyond Brahms, Wagner, and Richard Strauss (maybe a little Mahler). There
was outstanding Dixieland jazz. Unfortunately, I had little awareness of the
emerging newer developments in jazz, bebop, and Charlie Parker. The popular
music that I did catch on the radio—it was the era of the hit parade—seemed
mostly awful to me. I did see a few musicals, Guys and Dolls and Kurt Weill’s
Street Scene.

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260 occasional pieces

In January of 1950, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted the first US performance


of Webern’s Symphonie, op. 21. John Cage and Morton Feldman attended. Both,
overwhelmed, left the concert immediately after, found and introduced one an-
other in the lobby of Carnegie Hall, and became close friends, passing their
music and thoughts back and forth, intensively for about the next four or five
years. (After that Cage would move out of the city, to Stonypoint, New York, and
by the end of the 1960s Feldman was in Buffalo, where he lived and was profes-
sor at SUNY until his death in 1987.) A few months later, in 1950, my piano
teacher, Grete Sultan, sent me to John Cage. I’d realized my lack of talent for se-
rious piano playing and had started to compose on my own and, she rightly ob-
served, I could use some help. Cage generously took me on immediately. He set
me exercises to teach about structure—his rhythmic structure scheme, a practi-
cal and elegant way of organizing a whole piece such that all the time spaces,
both micro and macro, were in proportional relationships. He had me analyze
the first movement of the Webern Symphonie. We did—attempted—counter-
point exercises (sixteenth century, Palestrina style). And he had me just get on
with my own composition. Which I did, while the formal lessons stopped after
about five or six weeks. He said the point of the exercises and counterpoint
was to learn how discipline is acquired and works. Then I was on my own. We
continued to see one another, sometimes with Feldman, regularly. In 1952, Earle
Brown came to New York with his wife, Carolyn, she to dance with Merce
Cunningham, he drawn by shared musical interests with Cage and having heard
the New York–based pianist David Tudor play Cage, Feldman, Boulez, and my
work. The term “New York School,” used for the artists, then poets of around this
time, got attached to us—Cage, Feldman, Brown, myself—rather later, I think.
It should include the crucial figure of David Tudor and the dancer and choreog-
rapher Merce Cunningham, already associated with Cage for some time and now
embracing, and using for his dances, the music of the rest of us as well. (For myself,
I’ve found in retrospect, that Cunningham’s dances, which I’ve been seeing since
1950, have had a strong effect, both inspirational and supportive or confirming,
especially with respect to the dancers’ performing—the abstract patterning of
movement realized by different, individual bodies (and souls, personalities)—
and with regard to the structural rhythms of the choreography—its irregular,
fluid, matter-of-fact, and elegant ways of continuity, overlap, and simultaneity.)
As for David Tudor, it is hard to imagine our musical scene without him. He
was devoted to new work. He enjoyed especially difficult and intricate tasks. He
had uncanny and new skills as a performer (the ability, for example, to differen-
tiate the most extreme dynamic changes, at the highest speeds and across the
whole range of the piano keyboard). He also had an exceptionally acute ear. His
playing was sharp and precise, electric. He liked getting to the heart of what
seemed intractably enigmatic, and he himself liked to be enigmatic, though in
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 261

a quiet and matter-of-fact way. Much of the music we wrote at that time was,
�because of him, for piano. When we started making music with indeterminate
notations, that is, requiring the performer to make choices and realizations not,
in various ways, specified, it was his musicianship and ear and imagination for
sound that was our point of reference. By the mid-1960s, he had stopped playing
the piano and devoted himself to live electronics, with his own invented circuitry,
becoming a composer-performer.
To return to the wider musical situation: there were for us at first three other
important musical presences in New York. The first was Virgil Thomson. He and
Cage had become friends and he, a distinctive, idiosyncratic composer and chief
music critic for the Herald Tribune, had been since Cage’s arrival in New York in
1943 supportive, with refreshingly open ears and mind. He and Cage shared ad-
miration for Gertrude Stein’s writing and the music of Eric Satie. Cage intro-
duced me to Satie’s music, which, along with Webern, was to be one of my basic
musical points of reference. It was through Thomson’s music and especially
Satie’s that I first got a sense of how vernacular strains might be compatible with
modernism. Then there was Henry Cowell, the energetic and eclectic experimen-
talist and tireless advocate of American (North and South) experimental com-
posers, once Cage’s mentor on the West Coast, in New York and teaching at the
New School (where some of our work was first performed between 1950 and
1951). His courses were mostly about non-Western music, a subject almost in-
visible at the time. With his demonstrations of the variety of musical cultures
and ways of making music, and by raising questions of what might actually be
thought of as music, Cowell provided a wide context for our own musical work.
Then there was Edgar Varèse, greatly admired by all of us as the first, since the
1920s, to think musically and work with pure sonority, with sound simply as
sound rather than as a kind of by-product of the logics of pitch and harmony re-
lationships. I should also mention the composer Stefan Wolpe, with whom both
Feldman and Tudor had worked. Like Varèse, he was a European émigré (as was
I, just a little bit, arriving in New York from France with my German parents in
1941 at age seven). He had a lively, engaged mind that often and eloquently
�disagreed with what we were doing, but, unlike most of the music establishment
at the time, he didn’t simply reject or ignore our work, but listened and argued
with us. By the 1950s, he was writing densely wrought, serially (twelve-tone)
organized music. In the 1930s in Berlin his music included left-wing political
songs and incidental music for Berthold Brecht’s play The Exception and the Rule.
Feldman recounted that once when he came to Wolpe for a composition lesson,
Wolpe said to him that he should write music with the man-in-the-street in
mind. Feldman looked out the window and saw Jackson Pollock walking by.
The art scene in New York from the 1940s on was very much part of our
world, too. Cage had been close to artists on the West Coast already in the
262 occasional pieces

1930s—notably Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. In New York it was the abstract
expressionists, the sculptor Richard Lippold and, by 1954, Robert Rauschenberg
and Jasper Johns (at that time Cage admired Marcel Duchamp only from a
�distance). Feldman, through Cage, became especially close to certain painters,
above all Philip Guston. Before coming to New York, Earle Brown had a par-
ticular interest in the work of Calder and Pollock. Though I met some of these
artists through Cage and found Rauschenberg and Johns agreeably friendly and
was very taken with their work, my direct involvement was intermittent. By
1951, I was off at college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before that I was too
young to be staying up late drinking at the Cedar Bar on University Place where
the artists and musicians regularly gathered. Before meeting Cage I had been
particularly enthusiastic about Paul Klee. The close connection to these artists
was one of the things that marked us off from the rest of the contemporary music
world at the time. The artists and their followers felt like and often were the pri-
mary audience for our music. We shared a sense of doing new work and were
mutually interested and supportive. The art was in a relation of difference to tra-
ditional art that paralleled the relation between our music and the traditions of
classical music. So the opposition of abstract to representational in the art had
implications for the music as did the art’s immediacy of gesture as against the
planned formality of traditional art. The latter had close affinity with Feldman’s
highly intuitive and subjective way of working. Cage, on the other hand, was more
concerned with a distancing of the self and self-expression, which was charac-
teristic of Rauschenberg and Johns. These two also introduced new uses of
Â�ordinary, everyday material, literally in Rauschenberg’s case (e.g., the newspaper
and magazine scraps, a bed, stuffed goat) and representationally in Johns’s (the
flags and targets). This had some relation to Cage’s and my willingness to wel-
come ambient sounds—impossible to ignore because our music had a lot of
Â�silence in it—as part of a musical event. Cage also made use of “found” sonic
material, recordings of standard music and whatever was being broadcast on
the radio. To be sure, the conceptual conundrums of Johns’s work had no equiv-
alent in ours, though they engaged and tantalized us. Cage’s accounts of his ideas,
however conveyed (directly, through stories, in musical structures), were explicit,
coherent, and transparent.
We took it for granted that we were part of a community that included visual
artists. And dancers, foremost among them Merce Cunningham, but also Jean
Erdman (both had started in Martha Graham’s company), their students, and
company members. We all did music for dance, where new ways of working were
also being explored.
In the immediate background there were also a handful of scholars and writ-
ers about Asian—Indian, Chinese, and Japanese—religions and thought: Joseph
Campbell, not yet the television personality but a disciple of the distinguished
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Indologist Heinrich Zimmer and just beginning his comparative studies of


myth; Daisetz Suzuki, whose classes on Zen Buddhism at Columbia Cage at-
tended; and Alan Watts, promulgator of the lessons of Zen as it related to Western
mystical traditions and then, more directly, to contemporary Western life. The
ideas and understanding of Eastern thought of all three, as well as of the Boston-
based scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy, engaged Cage intensively at this time, a
time, I only later learned, of personal and artistic crisis. All I saw then was his
changing how he composed, by introducing the use of chance procedures, and
how he thought about and explained this, mostly in terms of Eastern thought.
I don’t think I saw this change as particularly extreme because of the context
of his previous music, which was already unlike anything else I knew, with its
sound world of percussion and prepared piano and its tendency toward an
overall static and nondirectional feeling. The rest of us knew Campbell (whose
wife was the dancer Jean Erdman) and Watts, too, who took some interest in
the music, though more for its connection to Cage and his involvement with the
Eastern ideas. This involvement with non-Western modes of thinking, like
Cowell’s ethnomusicology, again provided a wider context for our musics’ seem-
ing to call into question Western classical music assumptions about what might
be understood as music. At the time our work was often accused of not being
music at all.
Neither Feldman nor Brown was interested in Eastern thought. Feldman ex-
pressed his thinking in a highly, often very funny, polemical way, measuring him-
self against the contemporary music establishment, or else poetically with wide
reference to painting (new and old), stories, aphorisms, and thoughts variously
out of Jewish tradition, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and many others, mostly European.
Brown had a more technical-scientific background. He had studied engineering
and mathematics and had devoted himself to the work of Joseph Schillinger, who
devised mathematical procedures for analyzing and writing music (one gathers,
with practical success—his students included George Gershwin and Glenn
Miller). Brown was also actively interested in contemporary jazz. For Cage, the
involvement with Eastern thought was a way of dealing with his personal crises,
in which aesthetic and life questions were found to be inseparable.
Two more items of historical context: around 1950, the contemporary music
establishment centered on Aaron Copland and included a generation of com-
posers who had emerged in the 1930s as more or less “native,” composers like
Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, and David Diamond. Others, like Walter Piston,
William Schuman, and Roger Sessions, were academically based. Sessions, along
with Milton Babbitt (both at Princeton), tended to a harder-edged, more abstract
music, and Babbitt became the most distinguished and influential indigenous
proponent of serial music in the United States. Elliott Carter’s newly complex
music with its intricately elaborated rhythmic and pitch schemes was just
264 occasional pieces

emerging, notably with his first string quartet in 1950–51. The great experimental
individualists, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow,
were all but invisible in the background.
Of more importance for us were the emerging European avant-garde com-
posers. Cage had become close to Pierre Boulez during a stay in Paris in 1949
and was much impressed by the complexity and forcefulness of Boulez’s early
music and the vigor and edge of his thinking. Boulez was attracted by the new
sound of Cage’s percussion and prepared piano music and by his liveliness of
mind. (In 1951, Cage arranged for me to visit Boulez while I was on a trip to
Europe. For a week Boulez generously showed me his work and looked at mine,
and we talked about developments in New York and Paris—the latter few, apart
from Boulez’s own work and recent work, especially on rhythm, of Messiaen,
who had been Boulez’s teacher.) The closeness of Boulez and Cage did not sur-
vive the latter’s turn to the use of chance operations in composing and Boulez’s
absolute conviction that total serialism (the extension of twelve-tone proce-
dures, in their strict form, from pitch to the other parameters of sound—dura-
tion, amplitude, timbre, and articulation) was the only way of composing.
This totalizing micromanagement of sound would not have been usable for
the inherently indeterminate sound complexes of percussion and prepared piano.
The most notable effect of Boulez on Cage, as David Tudor who played the
music of both observed, could be heard in Cage’s piano piece Music of Changes
in 1951, by far the most complex music he had so far written (this was partly
�because he knew Tudor would find a way to play it), a music including extremes
of density and force, and requiring in its choice of pitch configurations a system-
atic use of the chromatic twelve tones. Un-Boulezian were the occasional uses of
noise (striking the piano body, slamming the piano lid down), the appearance
of extended spaces of silence, and a general feeling of static equilibrium. And of
course Cage’s use of chance procedures to determine how all the various param-
eters of the sound and the durations of silences actually came together. On the
other hand, this anatomizing of separate sound parameters again followed
Boulez’s example. That Cage’s piece with the most Boulezian elements should
have been put together by the chance means that Boulez most strongly rejected
is both an irony and an illustration of something later observed: that the ex-
tremes of total musical organization and the radical subjection of the musical
material to randomness could emerge at something very like the same place.
One could see the linking idea in a kind of organicism, that is, in the case
of the Europeans, the notion that all aspects of the sound material should be in-
tegrated through internal relationships. Thus, in a given piece, the twelve-tone
pitch organization would allow the pitch of every note to be exactly accounted
for; this was extended, analogously—an analogy whose logic was not too closely
examined—to durations, dynamics, articulation, and instrumental color. It was
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 265

thought that a musical composition should be (as Aristotle had said of a tragic
drama) like a living being, all of whose parts related to one another and had a
function in its totality. A few years before, Cage had embraced the classical
Indian idea that art should imitate nature in its manner of operation. In any case,
both the Europeans and Cage were thinking of music as something other than
the self-expression of the legacy of romanticism, though one could say that the
Europeans were concerned with self-assertion, if in a quite abstract way, while
Cage was concerned with self-abnegation. That’s what the chance operations
were for. They were also, I think, a kind of heuristic device, a way of discovering
sounds and combinations of sound one would not otherwise have thought of.
The Europeans’ idea seemed hermetic, organic only in the self-enclosed world
of  the piece itself, and it applied only to the composition of the piece. The
Americans were more pragmatic. Performance was regarded as an essential com-
ponent of the music. Cage insisted that a piece was not finished until it had been
performed. Its life was bound up with the contingencies of performance and per-
formance situations, including the presence of unpredictable sounds or noises
from the environment. The music would be organic in the sense that it was to be
a part of the world around it. As for Feldman’s and my work, by the end of 1951,
Boulez had dismissed them both as too simple and naive.
The other major figure of the European avant-garde to appear next, around
1952–53, was Karlheinz Stockhausen, of whom we heard and saw quite a lot. He
had a wider range of musical interests and curiosity than Boulez and a consider-
able capacity for absorbing and turning to his own use new musical ideas, espe-
cially those coming from the United States. It was Stockhausen who first helped
arrange for Cage and Tudor to present our music in Europe in 1954.
In an article called “A Life without Bach and Beethoven” (written in 1964),
Feldman spoke of the “frontier atmosphere” of the early 1950s art and music scene.
This feeling of new territory opening up came shortly after the end of World War
II. The older modernists were long established, if not always widely loved. By
the 1930s, some composers in the United States were, in a counter movement,
not only identifying their work more directly as American but taking also a turn
toward a more-or-less left-wing populism. Both the experimentalist Henry
Cowell, for instance, and the traditionalist Aaron Copland, along with many
others, were involved with the Composers Collective of New York, which was
devoted to discussions about and the writing of left political songs. (It was at
about this time that Jackson Pollock was studying painting with Thomas Hart
Benton.) All this went into a holding pattern for the duration of the war; most
populism became patriotic support of the war effort. Then, by 1950, the Cold
War was well under way. President Truman’s aggressive anticommunist “security
program” was started in 1947; McCarthyism was firmly settled in. Postwar artistic
energies were certainly let loose. We had a feeling in music that the established
266 occasional pieces

composers were spinning their wheels, caught in one or the other of the post-
Schoenberg or post-Stravinsky camps, in serialism or neoclassicism. It felt like a
time in which to make new beginnings. But not politically. We might, in retro-
spect, be thought to have been involved in a kind of utopian response, a resist-
ant withdrawal from the political world around us, but, as best I can remember,
we simply paid no attention to it. Being apolitical or keeping politically under
cover was the norm at that time.
There was also a near-hopeless situation with regard to money and public per-
formance of the music. Only the dancers, who were already mostly very poor,
paid for newly composed music. There was no public arts funding. Cage was
tireless in his efforts to raise private money for concerts, and he just managed to
organize one or two a year in New York along with a Cunningham recital. All
contemporary music was well at the margins of New York concert life, and we
were somewhere outside of those margins. (I did hear in 1950 Cage’s String
Quartet [1949–50] in a concert with a wide variety of twentieth-century music,
sponsored by, I think, the League of Composers, at the old Miller Theater at
Columbia University, and I took part in another a year later, in a performance of
his Imaginary Landscape no. 4, for twelve radios. Cage then gave up this kind of
association to organize our concerts, in which, because of Tudor, he was also
able to include the most recent work from Europe of Boulez, Stockhausen,
and others.)
What were some similarities and differences among Cage, Feldman, Brown,
and myself? I have already suggested some; now I’ll try to be a bit more system-
atic. As a group we were united by being noticeably different from other music
being made at the time. Where each of us came from, on the other hand, was
quite different. Our musical educations were irregular (none of us went to con-
servatory). Cage had some private lessons, with Henry Cowell and Adolph Weiss,
and he attended classes and some group private lessons with Schoenberg in Los
Angeles for two years. Feldman, after piano lessons, studied composition with
Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe in New York. Brown studied with Roslyn
Brogue Henning and at the Schillinger school in Boston. I studied piano with
Grete Sultan and, as said, some composition, counterpoint, and analysis with
Cage for a bit over a month in New York. For a few years, we could be said to
have studied with one another. Cage, for instance, showed Feldman how to copy
his music properly. (From some of Feldman’s early pieces and from mine from
the later 1950s Cage, starting in the 1980s, would take over and adapt the time-
bracket structures that he used in all his pieces from that time on.) An early
piano teacher of Cage’s, an aunt, I think, didn’t care for Bach or Mozart but liked
Grieg, to whose piano music Cage became attached because be found it not too
hard to play and he especially liked its many open fifths and fourths (they per-
vade, for instance, the String Quartet of 1949–50). It is a sound common to
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 267

many folk musics. Cage had a longstanding aversion to functional harmony,


Western classical music’s anchoring structural mode, with its inherent tendency
to drama in linear, narrative shape, working through conflicts to resolution. Early
interest in architecture and painting also accompanied and may have informed
his early involvement with music, which, at Schoenberg’s insistence, then became
his exclusive creative work (until the 1980s when he took up artwork, espe-
cially in the form of printmaking, seriously). He also wrote a great deal, such as
manifestos, essays, and lectures, which, starting in the 1950s, increasingly took
on the form of musical compositions and became a kind of poetry. He told of
coming to Paris in his late teens and seeing for the first time modern art and
thinking that, as was certainly not the case with the old masters, he could some-
how do that, too. His early reading was concentrated on modernists: Gertrude
Stein, e.e. cummings, Joyce (involvement with Finnegans Wake would last for the
rest of his life).
I can’t do justice to Feldman’s wonderful autobiographical reminiscences
printed as an interview in the Buffalo Evening News, April 21, 1973 (you can find
it in the collection of his writings, Give My Regards to Eighth Street). He sketches
out his musical beginnings: lessons with a Russian piano teacher who had known
Scriabin and had studied with Busoni. When Feldman was seventeen he met
Varèse who told him about meeting Debussy and Charles Ives. It never crossed
his mind to go to college. Then there were the artists. He always read voraciously.
I should say that Cage seems to me probably the most truly intelligent person
I have ever met. But Feldman, whom a friend once described as “more than in-
telligent,” was capable of seeing sharply to the heart of a matter and expressing
what he saw with a kind of poetic wit. He somewhere refers to himself as a
“tough, Jewish intellectual,” except that he happened also to be a musician. At
the end of that interview, he speaks about his personal attachment to history—
through his piano teacher to Scriabin and so Chopin, to Busoni and so Liszt,
through Varèse to Debussy and Ives, and how in Paris once he had a vision of
Heine walking toward him down the street: “I had this intense feeling for him,
you know, the Jewish exile.â•›.â•›.â•›.â•›W hat I feel most isâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›that I cannot betray this
Â�continuityâ•›.â•›.â•›.â•›the burden of history.”
Cage, in the early 1960s, was attacked by the communist avant-garde Italian
composer Luigi Nono for his indifference to history. Of all the musicians I’ve
met, Cage struck me as the most detached from the traditions of Western classi-
cal music. I had the impression that, if he never heard another note of it, it would-
n’t have made any difference to him. This is not at all to say that he was unaware
of that music. One of his first composition teachers, the pianist Richard Buhlig
in Los Angeles, was devoted to Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Cage had paid atten-
tion to that. If he happened to hear some classical work on a concert, he often
had something perceptive to say about it. The one older composer to whom he
268 occasional pieces

remained devoted all his life was the outsider (who in some quarters is still not
taken seriously) Erik Satie. Cage’s musical interests were entirely in the present,
for other experimentalists. And, starting in the mid-1960s, he began to express a
strong sense of the social and political life around him, particularly in a series of
writings called “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters
Worse)” (1965–82).
I’ve already mentioned Earle Brown’s background in engineering and math-
ematics. One reason for his coming to New York had been to take part in the
magnetic tape project organized by Cage in 1952. He was then to work for
Capitol Records and Time-Mainstream, producing an important series of new
music recordings, both US and European. Except for his interest in jazz, I have
no recollection that he had musical interests other than the current new music.
I do not feel as well informed as I would like, but I assume that Brown’s year
of private composition study introduced him to twelve-tone procedures; this
was to be, with just a few exceptions, his constant way of working with pitch
material.
As for myself, I grew up in an environment saturated with standard classical
music, and because of my father (who had played cello and whose father had
been a professor of music in Germany and a composer, in the circle around
Brahms), I was often in the company of distinguished musicians devoted exclu-
sively to that music. It was only on hearing, more or less by accident, Bartók,
Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and seeing the music of Varèse, Ives, and other
composers, including Cage before I had met him, in the New Music Editions put
out by Henry Cowell, that I thought, yes, I could and wanted to do that, too—
not to imitate but to mark for myself a distinctive change from existing earlier
music, classical and modern. My devotion to earlier music, though, continued,
too, and was to extend back to late medieval and Renaissance music as well.
Unlike Cage, Feldman, and Brown, I decided early on not to try to support
myself through music. Strong interest in literature, especially poetry, starting
with modernist poetry, somehow led me to study classics—Greek and Latin—
and then to teach it. Musical activity would be continued as best I could. I was
the only one of us who would go on to have a family, something I shared with
two other younger composers, whom I met, one in 1956, the other in 1960, and
with both of whom I became closely connected—Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius
Cardew. (Rzewski and I have noticed how, once we had small children about, we
developed structural schemes for our composing made up of collections of small
units, such as could be concentrated on whenever, say, a quarter or half an hour
might unexpectedly be free as a child suddenly fell asleep.)
It’s time to talk about the notion of experiment. Its causes are hard to pin-
point. The easiest to grasp may be to do with historical context. Culturally, again,
around 1950, a feeling of musical vacuum as far as vitally new work was concerned;
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 269

politically and socially, a reaction of detachment from the massive tensions start-
ing to be generated by re-emerging global conflict that was hard-line ideological
and backed on both sides by the possibilities of nuclear destruction. This might
seem unusual. Avant-garde art movements and their experiments are ordinarily
associated with political involvement: the Russian avant-garde at the beginning
of the twentieth century in tandem with the Bolshevik revolution; the commu-
nist connections of Dada and the surrealists in the 1920s; and, at the other end
of the political spectrum, the fascist associations of some of the Italian futurists.
And there were more immediate contingencies: of place (New York) and for the
musicians the visual art scene there; the encounters of individuals around the
magnetic figure of John Cage, and Cage’s organizational energy; the life histories
of individuals—Cage’s time of crisis, the youth of the rest of us, Feldman and
Brown just at the start of their careers (David Tudor, too), myself in late adoles-
cence, a time to be making one’s own way, wanting to try new things.
As for the consequences of experiments in music around 1950, I’d like to con-
sider the notion of experimental itself. Robert Ashley, one of the great experi-
mentalists appearing in the later 1950s, along with Gordon Mumma, David
Behrman, and Alvin Lucier, also Toshi Ichiyanagi and La Monte Young (coming
to New York from Japan and Berkeley, California) and Pauline Oliveros (who
stayed in California)—Robert Ashley once remarked that the term “experimen-
tal music” gave him the creeps. (I have the impression that Feldman and Brown
avoided the term as well.) I think I know what he means: it got overused, it’s
a too-easy pigeonhole, and it easily becomes dismissive. But I’ll stick to it. Cage
used it and reappropriated it in a 1955 article called “Experimental Music:
Doctrine,” where “doctrine” referred to a section of the article that was in dia-
logue form in the manner of the Chinese Buddhist (Zen) classic “Huang Po
Doctrine of Universal Mind,” a favorite text of his.
For a long time I’ve thought of myself as a composer of experimental music,
though my music has undergone a number of changes. Throughout, the main
thing has been a feeling that whatever I did should have a distinctive identity.
This was not a preset program, but a way of working. For instance, here is an in-
strumentation, say, a given ensemble wanted a piece, a given resource of possible
sounds, and a possible space of time—the scale or dimensions of what might
happen. Then there are, initially, a particular group of individual performers and
performing situation. What can I do that will allow the possibility of things hap-
pening that are at once clear, have an unencumbered presence, and still have
some mystery and surprise in them? And what can I do to engage and perhaps
surprise the performers? How do I make situations in which their attention
is engaged in such a way that their musicality is best activated, that their self-Â�
assertiveness disappears into the music and their intelligence and alertness are at
work together with self-forgetfulness?
270 occasional pieces

“Experimental” has earlier senses worth remembering, for example, indicat-


ing what belongs to one’s experience, what one has encountered first-hand. It
belongs also to the vocabulary of science, where its sense is usually rejected by
musicians: if it is experimental, it should stay in the lab, in the sketchbook, and
not be part of what is brought to the public. But it is worth recalling the first as-
sociations of the term with such Renaissance thinkers as Galileo, Da Vinci, or
Francis Bacon, for whom it was antimetaphysical, indicating a purely human
way of proceeding, discovering, and producing. In music, rather than indicating
preliminary work preparatory to making a final object, it can express an attitude
in the making and performing of the work. It points to the work’s continual
�condition of being in progress, of being in a life-process.
The notion of experimental will also be dependent on context. Once, as part
of the accompanying music for a dance of Merce Cunningham and his company,
I included along with usual music the informal and quite raucous singing of
Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid.” The audience, most of whom had routinely en-
countered Cunningham’s dances and more or less tolerated the most advanced
kinds of music (notably Cage’s and Tudor’s), audibly gasped in shock. An un-
exceptionable tune and text with old and familiar, if assertive, labor move-
ment sentiment had in the context of a modernist (and very beautiful) dance
become experimental. We had had no deliberate intention of producing a shock.
Experimental I don’t think has to do with shock, though it doesn’t exclude the
possibility of it. We did know we were taking a risk singing that song. Experiments
are full of risks (one of which is that what at one time had the vitality and edge
of  an experiment at a later time under other circumstances may lose these
qualities). In connection with Cunningham, I should recall that he allows the
music to go its own way independently of the dance. Usually the two do not
come together until an actual public performance. That is one aspect of his ex-
perimentalism.
Experiment in the context of the unexamined norms and routines and con-
tradictions of a prevailing culture may be oppositional. It can mean trying to find
and put into play new sources of energy. It can mean clarification or calling into
question and looking anew at what is taken for granted (both Cage and I have
noticed pedagogical aspects of our music). The process need not be aggressive,
but can be forceful, perhaps even explosive. An example would be Cage’s silent
piece, 4′33″ (from 1952), which from the point of view of sound is perfectly
�unassertive, but worked quite otherwise in the context of normal concert per-
formance. I never had a problem with it because it reminded me of the long
�silences of the Quaker meetings that took place every week at my school. One
might think that silence is a sign of death, but for Cage it was rather a window
open for sound; in a musical context silence is an artifact that allows us to hear
sounds as such, the sounds of the life around us. Structures come to light when
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 271

things are dismantled. New energy can work like a clearing storm or with sharp
focus have a cutting edge.
Experiment, one could say, is the dynamic within music working on its social-
cultural setting. Experiment should sustain a hope of renewal that is both aes-
thetic and political-social. The philosopher Richard Rorty refers to John Dewey’s
“experimentalism” that “asks us to see knowledge-claims as proposals about
what actions to try out next.” He then quotes Dewey:

The elaborate systems of science [we could, modestly, put in parallel


the systems of musical language] are born not of reason but of impulses
at first slight and flickering; impulses to handle, to move about, to hunt,
to uncover, to mix things separated and divide things combined, to talk
and to listen. Method is their [the impulses’] effectual organization into
continuous dispositions of inquiry, development and testing.

Rorty continues: “Dewey, because his vocabulary allows room for unjustifiable
hope, and an ungroundable but vital sense of human solidarity” allows us best
to function freely, that is, free of metaphysical or rationally totalized systems,
with the “haphazard and perilous experiments” that we are continually required
to perform.1
For one’s own working, experiment entails certain dispositions, for example,
unwaveringly close attention to everything: no dimension of the material to be
neglected or taken for granted, not necessarily that all of it be used but that it be
there as a possibility. A readiness for invention. Cornelius Cardew, writing about
the experimental improvisation group AMM, of which he was a member, spoke
of “the virtues that a musician can develop,” namely: simplicity—but “you have
to remember how you got there.” Integrity—a total relation of what we have in
mind and what we do. Selflessness—“to do something constructive you have
to look beyond yourself ”; self-expression is not an aim. Forbearance—starting
with the relations among fellow musicians and the music they make; we might
now call it openness. Identification with nature—using “the interplay of natural
forces and currents to steer a course.” An identification of “the musical and the
real worlds.” Finally, acceptance of death. This was with particular reference to
the intensely ephemeral nature of improvised music. I think it applies to all live
performance of music, which at its vital core involves a high-wire act of improv-
isation. A number of these qualities or “virtues” are clearly akin to Cage’s ideas,

Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,


1

1982), 208. The Dewey quotation is on page 205 and is from John Dewey, Human Nature and
Conduct (New York: Modern Library, 1930), 196.
272 occasional pieces

and one could add two more that he especially liked to evoke in later years: the
exercise of intelligence and of conscience.
Cage evoked, in connection with his music, principles of spiritual discipline.
He cited the idea, apparently from classical Indian thought, that the purpose of
music was “to sober and quiet the mind thus rendering it susceptible to divine
influences.” This he later modified to be more simply human: “to change the
mind so that it [becomes] open to experience, which is inevitably interesting.”
The raising of ethical issues is a new feature, I think, in the history of experimen-
tal music. In spite of this music having a very low profile on the larger cultural
horizon, it insists on an intrinsic relation to social life. This in turn is linked to
an  explicit sense of the music’s being made through performance, that is, at
the point where music realizes its public presence. The notion that cultural and
moral issues are closely related is, of course, very old—in the classical Indian,
Chinese, and Greek worlds, for instance, though it is a relation usually evoked to
countercultural innovation, in the cause of conservatism.
The articulation of such ideas around 1950 was Cage’s. I was also interested in
Eastern thought, Feldman and Brown were not. What we did all share was the
impulse to explore new ways of making music, which led us to devise a variety of
new technical procedures. Cage worked out numerous different ways of using
chance procedures, to distance a subjective self from the process of composition.
Feldman introduced the idea of having performers’ choices of pitch open, not as
a way of self-abnegation through indeterminacy, but as a notational procedure
that shifted focus to sound entities, “weights,” as he called them. What mattered
was less the specific pitch content of a sound than its register, which he specified
as high, middle, or low, and density (single sound, cluster, and so on), also specified.
And, as always in Feldman, instrumental color was carefully chosen. I occasion-
ally used chance procedures and, more often, ways of writing discontinuously,
in order to narrow and so focus more sharply composing choices, and in order
to avoid the rhetoric of willful choice. By 1957, I turned to locating indetermi-
nacy at the point of performance. Chance was not used in the process of com-
posing, but the performers were given choices to make from variously specified
ranges of material (pitch, color, dynamics, location in a time space), and when
there was more than one performer, they were required to play with specific
reference to each other’s sounds, which were arranged to appear in ways that
were not predictable. This resulted in a music that was always variable with each
performance. Brown was the first to make notational images that were entirely
open to the performers’ interpretation—what was later to be called graphic
music. He was looking for an immediacy of music making comparable to jazz
improvisation.
Putting on hold the traditional musical procedures, with their primary refer-
ence points in melodic line or thematic unit, metrical pulse, melody supported
Ex per imental Mu s ic around 1 9 5 0 , Cons eque nc e s and Caus e s ( 2009) 273

by harmonic aggregates and continuities, and the counterpointing of melodic


lines, we devised other grammars and syntaxes. Unlike the serialist composers
emerging at this time, we had a primary interest in a kind of found rather than
constructed sound, and in sonority as such, the actual, present noise that any
piece of music makes. We did not want to subordinate that to a closed compo-
sitional system or to use a compositional system that could not entirely vanish
into the final sound. We were also open, following Cage’s use of percussion, to
the use of almost any kind of sound or use of an instrument, not just those al-
ready certified as “musical.” We shared a feeling of space in the music, of sound
projected on to a space, which often involved extensive use of silence and a feel-
ing of suspended time. The music had no directional impulse and no narrative
logic or continuity, and certainly no dramatic trajectories with buildups and cli-
maxes; the latter might appear, but they were unmotivated. The music, one could
say, operated in a field, or made up a sonic landscape (Cage had used the title
“Imaginary Landscape” for some of his early percussion pieces, after the titles of
sculptures by David Smith).
It might appear that this music did away with subjectivity; Cage seemed to
insist on that. But one could also say that what we were rejecting was the rhetoric
of subjectivity that has come down from nineteenth-century romanticism (a re-
jection we shared, for instance, with Satie and Stravinsky). In his “Lecture on
Nothing” (ca. 1949–50), Cage said “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it /
and that is / poetry / as I need it.” That surely indicates an individual expression
of self, too. For all the associations among us, we were all four, of course, inevita-
bly, quite different, and enjoyed and freely exercised our differences; we were
hardly a “school.”
In the following decades, our music, variously, changed. Feldman’s and
Brown’s rather less so, Cage’s and mine more, especially by the end of the 1960s,
under the impact of, like many others then, our waking up to the social and po-
litical events around us: the civil rights movement, the re-emergence of the left,
the Vietnam War. But that’s another story.
It was suggested to me that this talk about the music of the 1950s might also
look to the present. Well, what I’ve been saying inevitably comes from the
�present as I experience it. The experimental music of the 1950s seems to be
hanging on, though still at the margins—where there are other musics too, say,
folk music, most jazz, early music (Western). Even mainstream classical music is
being increasingly marginalized by the overwhelming force of commercial pop
music. (Perhaps more positively one could say that the overall state of music is
one of the widest possible heterogeneity, driven by ubiquitous recording tech-
nologies.) The earlier music of Cage and the later music of Feldman have become
classics of a kind, though, depending somewhat on how and in what circum-
stances they are performed, there is still an experimental aura around them.
274 occasional pieces

Feldman’s pieces of extreme length—up to six uninterrupted hours, for all the
beautiful music in them, constitute a severe challenge to any normal concert
Â�situation and to usual listening habits. Cage’s music of the 1960s, if properly
�performed, still has real grit in it and remains tough to assimilate, as does his
late work. Though beautiful in its quiet sparseness, in its ascetic repose it runs
strongly against current mainstreams. Earle Brown’s open form pieces, elabo-
rated by the 1960s, though their idiom became standard by the 1980s, still have
a lightness and freshness, partly because he initiated the idiom, and because the
forms can really be audibly and variably open.
A feature of the 1950s (and 1960s) music that I have not mentioned so far is
the considerable body of pieces that were accessible for performers who were
not virtuosos (so, apart from the virtuosic music written for David Tudor). Cage
and Feldman played the piano, as do I, all of us with very modest technique, and
quite a lot of the music reflected our performing abilities as well as our wish to
be able to play our own music. When we devised new notations, in addition, and
performing requirements, these would be new for all performers, trained and
untrained musicians alike. This aspect of the music has continued to be useful, in
alternative performing situations and in teaching contexts, because of its open-
ness and flexibility, its mix of requiring discipline and free inventiveness and
Â�resourcefulness, and its focus on listening, in detail, to sounds, both one’s own
and others’.
Much (though by no means all) of the music currently being made—Â�certainly
what gets most supported economically and promotionally—seems to me to be
a music of accommodation and recuperation. It is sometimes made with great
skill and flair, especially in the treatment of instrumental color. But one can hardly
hear it as experimental. Experimental, nevertheless, is where I have thrown in
my lot, believing it to be always necessary, if only as a reminder, however oblique,
that the world around us might be different, might be better.

This is the text of a lecture given at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. It was �published
in American Music 27, no. 4 (2009).
46

Interview with James Saunders (2009)

A lot of your work explores the nature of social interaction in music, and
I wanted to begin by asking you what draws you to such contingent processes
as opposed to specifying more fixed relationships between sounds?

OK, here goes—I’m afraid I’m a bit longwinded. Your question does go to the
heart of a matter. And I can’t think how to answer properly without some history.
Also, in advance, apologies for overlap and repetition of what I’ve said on other
occasions, or written—at this point, at the moment, I just plunge in not Â�worrying
about that—though I’m starting to get haunted by my déja-dit.
I first thought of devising “contingent processes” as a way of dealing with
what we came to call at the time indeterminacy. It was in the air. Cage’s looking
for a way to find detachment, in the Eastern way, through chance operations.
Feldman making the graph pieces, to put himself on an edge, and because he
wanted to work directly with sound as weight (varying and shifting), not part of
a system of pitch arrangements. We were all looking for new ways of making
music, starting, if possible, from scratch—i.e., rethinking what music might be.
Why? Because of a sense of general bankruptcy of the music being made
around us.
Some time in 1950, I made a piece for three (unspecified) voices, which was
through-composed except for the pitches. The notation was a single line, the
notes on, above or below it, indicating melodic direction, but not the intervals or
any reference pitch. These were chosen freely by the singers individually. I did
this because I didn’t (in this case) want to deal with pitch systems. Also I wanted
the piece to be flexible—for any kind of singer, for various skills. More positively,
I shifted the focus. Singers usually worry about getting pitches right, rhythm,
dynamics, etc. come second, or are done more ad hoc. Here it’s the other way
around. Though it’s not as though one area is more or less important, it’s just that
different kinds of attention are involved.
My next, more thorough going try at contingent processes came about
out of practical necessity. (I tell this story often.) I had committed to making

275
276 occasional pieces

a two-piano piece for Frederic Rzewski and myself to play. At the time (1957)
I was writing complex, entirely through-composed music, and I thought I’d be
doing more of the same. It turned out I couldn’t find the time to write like that,
and even if I had, we wouldn’t have had time to learn to play the music. So
Frederic and I worked out a scheme—time spaces with variably usable material
to play in them, each of us proceeding independently except that the totals of
each of our time spaces (they were determined by a Cagean square root rhyth-
mic structure) were the same. So we started and ended together (stopwatches
were used). What we had was a through-composed scaffolding or structure
within which we made individual choices, from preset material. So a shift of
focus to performance, somewhere in between improvisation and following pre-
scriptions. Preparing the piece we found that, of course, it changed all the time,
which made rehearsals (and performances) really interesting. I also noticed that,
though I might have prepared certain things—made preliminary choices from
the material—in the actual playing my choices were inevitably affected and al-
tered by what Frederic happened, at any given moment, to have decided to play,
and the same, r� eciprocally, for him.
After that, for quite a while (years!), everything I wrote involved such pro-
cesses, variously elaborated. There was still a pragmatic motivation. I was trying
to make a music that could be performed under the circumstances of the time—
for my work very limited performance opportunities, my own involvement in
performances in spite of my quite limited playing skills, the involvement of others,
usually nonprofessional, who were not virtuosos (some of course definitely were,
like Frederic and David Tudor).
There was also musical motivation. My indeterminate procedures could pro-
duce a kind of rhythm that I couldn’t think how else to do—caused, for instance,
by playing freely within variably fixed time frames, in spaces not along a linear
grid of pulse; and by requirements of coordination (the business, for example, of
player one plays a sound of free duration, player two must play the moment she
hears the sound stop, not knowing when that will be). These procedures were
also occasions or incentives for the performers to be inventive about sound
itself. Often instruments were not specified (again, more practical), but certain
ways of playing were, for instance the requirement to change the color of a sound
three times as it sounds, or the use of a noise element to be devised by the player
with his instrument, or not.
I had the notion, and still do, that the music should be exploratory, experi-
mental, partly to get out from under the enormous weight of traditional Western
classical music (though it’s a music I know well, and to much of which I am quite
attached), partly because I can’t think of—or haven’t the skills for—anything else.
While at school in New York, my friends and I used to go hear Dixieland jazz,
which I liked a lot. I think the use of the fixed structural elements—eight-bar
Inter v iew w ith Jame s S aund e rs ( 2009) 277

units, alternation of chorus and solo, unrelenting pulse, standard instrumental


framework, underlying given tunes—combined with improvisation, exploration
of instrumental possibilities (well beyond anything I’d heard in classical or, then,
“new” music) and, especially, a kind of free heterophonic playing by several or
more players: all that, though I didn’t reflect particularly on it at the time, made
a great impression.
As for “social interaction in music,” you could say I stumbled on it. The condi-
tions for getting my work out, making it social—to my mind the only way that
music exists at all—drew me to these kinds of pragmatic solutions. That the ways
to them were experimental (indeterminacy, etc.) has come to be a social, and
political, matter too. The techniques of coordination, interaction, and interde-
pendency, all players being equal (really, the normal thing in chamber music),
and the sharing out of musical independence between composer and performers—
that can have a metaphorical or exemplary force: social democracy. That doesn’t
mean, by the way, that when making a piece of music everything is driven by
what it should mean politically (which could be a musical disaster, and so also a
political one). When making music I just make music. But in all ways possible—
how the making is set up (this could be musical-technical or social), realized,
how presented, how you work with the musicians, how relate to an audience, for
instances—I hope to stay always aware of good democratic principles.
I used to object to the notion of experimental music having something tenta-
tive about it (it’s only an experiment, not something properly established like
“fixed relationships between sounds”). Now I don’t mind so much. The state of
the world is alarmingly tentative, seems more than ever on the brink. Can music
be anything else? Not that it has simply to reflect this. Some expression of hope,
however unjustified, is still in order. But doesn’t it also have to have some “real-
ism,” has to avoid mystification? The notion of experiment, contingent processes,
matters because I think it represents an image and attitude that allow for the
possibility of change (for the better).

Although you are clearly still working with such processes, you seem to be
implying a widening of your practice to include (or return to) music that
does not rely solely on contingency to shape or form itself. Is this partly due to
a change in conditions, and times, and do the musicians for whom you are
writing govern your approach in any way? I’m thinking partly about how
you approach a solo or small group piece in �contrast to a large ensemble, or
orchestra.

The mid-60s pieces like Quartet (1965) and the Electric Spring series (1966–70)
are different from my usual contingent process pieces. They were pieces for par-
ticular and unusual instrumental combinations that happened to be available
278 occasional pieces

(and at the time I couldn’t imagine they’d be played more than the one time).
Aside from some piano pieces, the usual contingent pieces didn’t specify instru-
ments (e.g., For 1, 2 or 3 People [1964])—and, incidentally, they still get played
a lot more. Here the musicians available and their instruments caused a shift
in approach. I think differently when writing for unspecified instruments. More
abstractly, or some kind of generically, with regard to color, for instance, while
there might be a sharper focus on, say, the patterning of hocketed lines.
I’ve long been interested in a variety of degrees of indeterminacy or contin-
gency, from almost none (the performer has to do exactly what’s specified) to
various extremes, say, an indication for the player to do whatever she wishes,
though only somewhere within a time-space of two seconds, or to do something
quite specified at any time at all. Sometimes this variety happens within one piece,
sometimes from piece to piece. For instance, the openness of Edges (1968)—
which is really just a guide for free improvisation, on the one hand, and the
always recognizable tune in Burdocks (1970–71) (though there the instrument(s)’s
not specified, nor dynamics nor tempo and you can read the notes in treble or
bass, make spaces of free duration between phrases of the melody, play at any
time and repeat as often as you like, or not).
More generally, when I make a piece that’s pretty much through-composed
and specified—that looks like regular music (though I rarely indicate dynamics
or articulation)—I don’t have in mind one, single possible way of performing it.
I evade performers’ questions after playing: is this the way you wanted it? Partly
because I don’t know (though I might know a wrong-headed or wrong-eared
way of playing) and partly because I’d like the performance to be as much an ex-
pression of the performers’ sense of the music as of mine. I’ve always thought
that’s what’s distinctive about music: even with the most elaborately detailed
notation the music can’t possibly ever be played exactly the same way twice (you
only get exact repetition when you play a recording). I’ve taken that “given,” you
could say, and composed with it.
By the seventies, to be sure, there was a noticeable shift toward making
a music more like what I supposed most people regarded as music. I included
�pre-existing melodic material (from folk music mostly, and politically related),
I notated conventionally pulsed rhythms, specified the pitches (except for the
occasional call for a noise of the player’s devising) and used recognizable coun-
terpoint. This had less to do with the musicians for whom I was writing—though
it might also in the case of musicians, say, like Frederic Rzewski, because of
shared political sympathies—than with changes in the times. The politically
charged times of the late sixties and after—civil rights in the US, the Vietnam
War, renewed awareness of social-economic justice issues, the women’s move-
ment—though I’ve come to realize that all times are politically charged. Along
with other friends, Frederic, Cornelius Cardew, Yuji Takahashi, Erhardt Grosskopf,
Inter v iew w ith Jame s S aund e rs ( 2009) 279

Garrett List, John Tilbury among others, I thought that our music work should
be �politically awake.
At this time too the minimalism of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich
emerged and made a great and refreshing impression, especially after what seemed
an ever-deepening morass of hyper-complex music, and also after a sense of in-
creasing introversion in experimental music. Suddenly it was OK to think about
nonchromatic pitch arrangements and regularly pulsed music, and outgoingness.
It was also at this time that John Cage started doing his “cheap imitations”—
using the pre-existing rhythms and pitch materials from pieces of Western clas-
sical music. And other composers, some previously very dodecaphonic, took up
writ