Edges – A Listener’s Guide and Reflections
Michael Francis Duch
This essay consists of my personal thoughts and reflections about the process concerning the recording of my solo-album Edges, due to be released in September 2010 by the Norwegian record label +3db as a part of the documentation and results of my research. It hopefully shows not only why I chose to do a recording of composed experimental music, but also the reason why I chose to record these particular compositions. I guess some may find it strange or somewhat paradoxical, that the first CD in a series portraying solo-improvising musicians solely contains composed music from the fifties and sixties. … And to be honest, this recording was intentionally planned to contain nothing but freely improvised music on the double bass; - so what happened?
When planning this recording together with my close friend and colleague Bjørnar Habbestad, who also produced this album, we both wanted to present something that shows what I am working on now, - something up to date, so to speak. Ironically, we ended up doing experimental compositions from the fifties and sixties. I believe we also ended up with a recording that shows both some of the history of composed experimental music and, briefly, the development from Morton Feldman’s graphic scores from 1950 in the USA to the end of the following decade in London, with Howard Skempton's poetic post-Fluxus text piece. In many ways these compositions also reflect my interest in the English composer and musician Cornelius Cardew, as the pieces and their composers are somewhat connected to him. This could therefore also easily have ended up being a CD presenting only Cardew’s music.
The compositions interpreted on this recording portray the way composed experimental music of the New York-school in the early fifties inspired musicians and composers involved with improvisation in the latter part of the sixties; making music using both elements of the graphic notations of the fifties and free improvisation. Feldman and Brown were leading the way, along with their mentor John Cage, and Christian Wolff ended up being the one who became inspired by what he himself had inspired in the first place, something I will explain later in this essay.
Experimental Music: Composition versus Improvisation
Before I present and discuss in more detail the music which I focus on in this essay, I believe it is important that the meaning of the word “composition” is given some thought. As we shall see, the music and the scores that are discussed here are quite different from not only that of Bach and Mozart, but also from that of many contemporary composers in our own time. This is a theme that I intend to explain in this essay. The word composition can have many meanings, depending on its context of use, but a common meaning is “the way in which the factors or parts make up the whole.” (Allen, 2002:172)
Although the dictionary explanations of the word when referring to music is that of something which is written, or simply “a written piece of music” (ibid.), its common meaning referring to that what makes up the whole is interesting in the context of experimental composition as it becomes something of a paradox: In composition it is the composer who makes up the whole of the music, while in improvisation this is done by its performers. As we shall see, the following experimental compositions from the fifties and sixties can rely on both performer and composer as one often can find that both form and content in these compositions can be left for the performer to resolve.
An important part of my research has been to find and identify compositions that contain considerable freedom of choice for the interpreter and performer, not only in preparing it in advance, but also whilst performing it. These compositions therefore have in common that they can be played in a spontaneous and creative manner much like improvised music, although as we shall see there are certain limits involved and the freedom of choice involved may vary. In the case of Brown, his composition December 1952 was partly intended for making “classical” musicians improvise, while Wolff composed Edges inspired by his experience of engaging in free improvisation with Cornelius Cardew and AMM in London in 1967. Feldman, on the other hand, stopped composing graphic scores in the sixties as he felt that he gave the interpreter too much freedom, and therefore could not control the outcome of his compositions the way he had intended them to be.
Two pioneering ensembles who dealt with free improvisation in the mid sixties, MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) and AMM (whose acronym is still a secret), were also involved with experimental composed music and those associated with it: Cardew and Wolff with AMM, and Frederic Rzewski and Steve Lacy with MEV. This shows that this way of composing can be flexible enough to attract musicians who would normally not perform composed music, as well as composers wanting to create music that is spontaneous and indeterminate. The composers were therefore willing to lose their total control of the outcome of their compositions or, in other words, to give up their ‘dictatorship’, so to speak. But what is the main difference between freely improvised and composed music? The Swedish bass player Harald Stenström has been involved in free improvisation since the seventies, and offers the following reflection in his thesis on free ensemble improvisation:
“For me, the boundary is drawn when something is predetermined about the music, whether it is written down or not, and holds for at least one performance. This predetermined something is a composition, a product. The predetermined has more the character of composition if it holds for more than one performance, if it is written down and can therefore be taken over by other musicians for other performances (that may be independent of the first), and if it works without complementary information from its creator.” (Stenström, 2009:171)
Although it is not specifically stated, I believe Stenström here also refers to compositions that belong to an oral tradition, such as jazz and various folk musics or, as in the case of the composer Elaine Radigue, where some compositions are written for an instrumentalist and not an instrument, and delivered to that person orally. These compositions are, thus, not free improvisation as they do predetermine what is to be played, however vague the instructions may be. They can, however be closely related to free improvisation and even function as tools for practicing free improvisation. This is something that Cornelius Cardew explains about how his text composition The Tiger’s Mindcan be practiced at rehearsals, and how it can function as an improvisational exercise gradually leading to a “free” improvisation:
“Initially the two texts given above should be regarded as limiting (i.e. play the given actions in the given order), the Daypiece and Nightpiece being used for performance on alternate occasions. All musicians should memorize the text to be used. Subsequently new actions and situations me be allowed to arise spontaneously, concurrent or interleaved with the given ones; also the succession of events may be altered, more or less at random (.) After additional experience it may be desirable to devise new texts involving the same six characters – the new texts should then be memorized as before. Finally it may be possible to play without a text, simply improvising actions and situations involving the six characters.” (Cardew, 1967:85)
Personal background and motivation
Being involved in almost exclusively free improvisation for a decade or so has led to my growing personal interest in exploring what improvisation is and how it works; especially free improvisation and improvisation in experimental music. My first meeting with this form of music was through jazz, as I am first and foremost trained as a jazz musician. This naturally opened my eyes and ears to free jazz; particularly to the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, then to European free improvisation, such as that of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann, and also to a parallel interests in noise and avant-rock, such as Merzbow, Velvet Underground, Cabaret Voltaire as well as to contemporary composed music and classical avant-garde, ranging from Alban Berg via John Cage to Helmut Lachenmann.
This recording, Edges, has ended up being a way of challenging me musically in many ways. I wanted to make the music sound new and fresh and I also wanted to add a new dimension to it; a new approach or, perhaps most importantly, to mirror a new angle of it. This applies not only to the compositions themselves, but also to my own playing. This is also my main reason for recording these compositions and for approaching them first and foremost as an improviser. When improvising solo, because there are no “sparring partners” involved, one can more easily fall into recurring habits and clichés. Perhaps this way of improvising can be compared to shadowboxing, or maybe it is the musical equivalent of Tai Chi, where the opponent or team player is discarded? Could this be the reason why some musicians find it pointless to improvise solo, while there are others who might find it liberating?
“Sure. I do play my solo concerts a couple of times a year. Sometimes I go and have a kind of concept or a few ideas I want to perform. A lot of times I tried that I felt, just after trying to do what I have in my mind, that the sound material, the instrument, or something else told me: forget it. So it’s really out of my control in that moment. Something tells me: forget that shit, play, improvise, turn things around.” (Brötzmann, 2003:18)
My choice to play composed music instead of improvising or even composing my own music was a result of many factors. One of them being that I have been playing these pieces and other similar ones for some time, and therefore wanted to document them. And of course the obvious reasons were that I simply enjoy performing them, and that I like the music they produce and the way they are composed. As a research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway, my research has been on free improvisation as both a method of music-making and as a vague musical genre. These pieces can therefore also be viewed as improvisational exercises and examples of how this way of composing changed through the two decades that they represent. Maybe they can even challenge the so-called freedom of free improvisation? Personally, I certainly have at times felt even more “free” performing these pieces than when improvising, but this usually depends on whom I am playing with, as the opposite can also sometimes be true.
So far in this essay I have presented some of my own background as a musician and, briefly, some of my thoughts about improvisation and composition, which I have related to the early days of experimental music. I will now discuss the five compositions from my solo-CD Edges in more detail. Hopefully this will give the reader and listener a better idea of why I have chosen these pieces among several others.
Christian Wolff’s Edges was composed in London in 1968 and it was inspired by the composer’s experiences from improvising with the ensemble AMM, but also from his participation in the premiere of Cornelius Cardew's The Tigers Mind, as well as in other of Cardew's highly experimental compositions such as Schooltime Compositions. I believe it is one of the few successful attempts at composing an improvisation, beside the ones by Cardew I just mentioned. In Edges, 31 signs are scattered over a page, and the ways of performing the score can be highly individual. The score gives hints and clues as to what might be played, and in some ways it almost acts as an additional performer.
When I met Wolff and performed this piece and others with him in February 2007, he mentioned that he had experienced that while performing Edges he would sometimes forget what signs he was playing, which is perhaps an indication of its improvisatory character. At times this composition can function almost as a conversation where one easily digresses and drifts off to neighbouring topics without disturbing the conversation itself. And perhaps it is in conversation that we find that we are the closest we can come to a form of everyday-improvisation? I believe that this composition is one of the few of its kind that manages to use graphic and visual elements in such an improvisatory way that it almost functions as a “free” improvisation.
A typical feature of Wolff’s music is the way he uses active listening and reacting to the sounds you hear as a part of realizing the music of the score in the same way improvisers do when they improvise. His composition For 1, 2 or 3 people from 1964 is one example of this, as it cannot be performed unless one listens and reacts to the other players involved. Wolff’s role in the history of experimental music is also interesting. As I have mentioned earlier, he both inspired and was inspired by the European experimental music-scene in the mid 1960’s with Cardew as a central figure. My version of this piece also uncovers and reveals to some extent my fascination for the music and extended techniques pioneered by the Italian double bass-virtuoso Stefano Scodanibbio. This becomes quite obvious towards the end of the piece and particularly the plucked harmonics that has become somewhat of a trademark of his.
There are many ways of approaching this piece. David Tudor made his own composition based on the score, as he did with most of the graphic compositions he performed. I have chosen to include it here both because of its visual and functional qualities and its historical significance. Earle Brown was the only one of the New York-school composers with a background from jazz and improvisation. Coining the expression ”open form” through his collection of compositions Folio (1952-4), he invented a way of composing where the outcomes of the form of his compositions were indeterminate.
December 1952 is perhaps the most well known example of pieces from this collection, where horizontal and diagonal lines of various lengths and thicknesses create a three dimensional score which is meant to be read from any side, corner, - or even from the inside and out. It is also one of the earliest examples of an attempt to incorporate improvisation in composed music to such a large extent that the freedom of this score makes it ideal to be approached in an experimental and improvisatory manner. Morton Feldman described the differences between the music of Brown and Cage in an essay simply called Earle Brown:
”Both Cage and Brown dramatize the structural aspect of process. Brown differs from Cage in that while his initial material is pre-established, he achieves maximum possibilities through allowing the form of the music to be improvisatory. With Cage it is the other way around. Here the structure is fixed, while the material is only suggested.” (Friedman, 2000:43)
In his later compositions following Folio, and particularly in Available Forms, Brown used signs such as numbers written on cards for the conductor to indicate what parts of the composition that was to be played. Needless to say, this inspired later composer/performers involved with improvisation, in particular John Zorn and his “Game-pieces” and the improvised conduction of Butch Morris. It should also be mentioned that Zorn has released recordings of Earle Brown’s music on his record label Tzadik and is also a member of the composers committee of the Earle Brown Music Foundation. My own approach to this piece was to treat the bass in the same way as Cage’s prepared piano, searching for sounds in sometimes unknown territories. Perhaps this was (more practically- than musically) inspired by the English bass player Barry Guy, using tympani- and drumsticks for both attack and preparation.
Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns
Cornelius Cardew’s Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns is one of the composer’s early experimental pieces, and although he probably was closer to the aesthetics of John Cage at the time when it was composed, it may also be approached in a more improvisatory way. The composition consists of a total of 60 signs where the first sign is also nr. 61, indicating the cyclic function of the piece and also the year it was written. The performer may, however, read the score backwards and any of the signs can be left out. As in several of Jasper Johns paintings from the sixties the numbers 1-9 occur in the signs or action areas, although sometimes disguised, as a form of dedication.
I suppose that Cardew’s interest in Jasper Johns and his contemporaries could also have been inspired by the composers of the New York-school, who were all quite often quoted as being inspired by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. They all even dedicated some of their music to those just mentioned, as well as to Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. There is certainly a visual quality in Cardew's works that enhances the reading of the score to such an extent that the visual representation of the score becomes in itself a work of art. His later employment as a graphic designer seems to be an important factor in the development- and composing of his Treatise, which he began working on two years after he finished Octet ’61.
Treatise was inspired by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, whose title was homage to a work by Spinoza. Wittgenstein tried to identify the relation between language and reality, and this inspired Cardew to compose his graphic masterpiece consisting of 197 pages with no explanation offered regarding interpretation and how to perform it. Octet ’61 however can perhaps be seen as having closer ties to that of semiotics as its 60 different signs are often both musical and numerical melted together. It is up to the performer how to read these signs, as well as how to give them meaning and convert them into music. They can be analysed and recomposed as David Tudor did with most of the graphic scores he encountered, or one can chose to play the piece in an improvisatory and free associative way.
I have approached this piece in an improvisatory manner, but I have tried to stay true to the general instructions and signs, particularly the pitches, when suggested. I find that this piece gives an indication on the level of freedom of interpretation granted to the performer that can be found later in Cardew’s experimental compositions from the latter part of the sixties. In many ways Anton Lukoszevieze’s multi-tracked version has been hugely inspiring for me, and perhaps that is why I have tried to do my version of it quite transparent and minimalistic, avoiding to many layers, but there are bound to be some form of similarities between these two recordings.
Projection 1 (for solo cello)
In 1950 Morton Feldman invented a way of composing where he used graphic scores consisting of boxes placed within a system representing time and relative pitch. The performer chooses where to play, within that beat and within the area of pitch (high, middle and low) and timbre, which is the only freedom or liberty left to be taken by the performer. Projection 1 (for solo cello) was the very first piece he composed in this manner, and in fact it is the first known graphic score, which inspired Cage to compose graphic scores himself. Three years later Feldman composed his second piece for solo cello, Intersection 4, in more or less the same way, where the system was perhaps more refined, but the music was more complex, demanding up to 10 notes (if possible) to be played simultaneously by the performer.
Feldman’s two cello-pieces from this period can be viewed in comparison to John Cages 59 1/2 seconds for a string player (1953) and 26.1499’ for a string player (1955). In both cases each of the composers two pieces share the same musical identity, and the way of composing undergoes a slight transformation from the first to the second piece and becomes more “user-friendly”, so to speak. In Cages scores the shifting metronome indications in the first piece was abandoned and replaced by a timeline of minutes and seconds. As for Feldman, the only difference is the visual aspect of the score; where the boxes indicating time and pitch are less connected in the first score, also being the first of his series of compositions called Projection - they are presented more in uniform in the second one, which is the last of his series called Intersection. Both Feldman and Cages two pieces for solo string instruments from the first half of the fifties have in common a strict timeline representing duration, and a graphic representation of the music rather than traditional notation, but otherwise they sound musically quite different from each other.
Feldman stopped composing in this way in the sixties, as he claimed almost none of the performances of these compositions were done the way he intended them to be. Perhaps he would feel differently today, as more musicians have at least some experience with both indeterminacy and improvisation? Like Cage, it seems that during the sixties Feldman was not all that interested in improvisation as such, at least not much more than his interest in a certain degree of indeterminacy. In compositions like The King of Denmark from 1964 there is certainly a high level of indeterminacy, but there is always a sense of control over the outcome and the overall form of the music. However that may be, his way of notation inspired many of those who did try to incorporate improvisation into experimental composition later. The author Frank O’Hara describes the relationship between freedom and control in Feldman’s music of the fifties in the following way:
”To perform Feldman’s graph pieces at all, the musician must reach the metaphysical place where each can occur, allying necessity with unpredictability. Where a virtuoso work places technical demands upon the performer, a Feldman piece seeks to engage his improvisatory collaboration, with its call on musical creativity as well as interpretative understanding.” (Friedman, 2000:213)
Although there is a very limited possibility for incorporating any form of improvisation in this piece, elements such as the musical ”freshness” of spontaneity can be obtained by not planning the pitches beforehand and leaving it to be a split-second choice of the moment. In this version I have tried to stay true to the tension that exists between the floating pitches in Feldman’s music. It was originally written for solo cello and, to my knowledge, it has never been performed on the double bass before. As in the case of Cage’s pieces for solo string instruments, the graphic score of Projection 1 does not make the transition from cello to double bass any more challenging or of any other significance than the fact that it was originally intended for solo cello.
Howard Skempton was a pupil of Cardew and together with Michael Parsons he formed the radical Scratch Orchestra in 1969; - an ensemble devoted to experimental composition and improvisation. This happened in the same year as Skempton composed his poetic three-word piece For Strings. This is a somewhat dreamy and poetic composition, owing its debt to Fluxus and consisting only of the three words shingle, waves and seagulls. It shows that the way the English experimental composers wrote their text pieces was in essence quite different from the Fluxus-composers, who often wrote instructions demanding a certain type of action or describing the music to be played. In George Brecht’s “Solo for Violin, Viola, Cello or Contrabass” the instruction is ”Polishing” (Friedman, 1990) and one can find other instructions like ”Make music only with overtones” (Yoko Ono), or even a traditionally notated perfect fifth accompanied by the instruction ”To be held for a long time” (La Monte Young).
Text pieces like For Strings are, on the other hand, an ideal way of setting the mood for an open improvisation, as it very much challenges ones imagination. Here one must try to create something from the three words indicating a landscape or a certain mood not unlike Song of Pleasure from Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions, composed the year before For Strings. Cardew, however, uses more words and stronger hints to what sounds to create when he describes the situation of rowing a boat on a lake where one can hear the sound of the creaking of the oars in the rowlocks of the boat and so on. In this version I have been inspired by Joelle Leandre’s take on John Cage’s Ryoanji – the combination of the whistling and long glissandos in particular.
Some remaining thoughts and concluding remarks
I guess the remaining questions relate to whether these pieces are just relics of the past, and, thus, whether these compositions still have a function today as, at the time when they were composed, they often served as a way of enabling musicians with little or no experience with improvisation to improvise. Are they indeed compositions of a timeless quality, or am I simply, musically trying to reinvent the wheel by performing them today? Why play these compositions at all when you can improvise instead? These compositions are only a selection from many pieces that represent this form of composing and together they also represent some kind of historical development. This process of development ranges from the early attempts by Earle Brown, who was inspired not only by Feldman and Cage, but also by Alexander Calder’s ”Mobiles” and Jackson Pollock’s action painting, through to Cardew and Skempton being inspired by fluxus and improvisation.
When Earle Brown confronted Cage with his Folio asking him his opinion about his attempts to incorporate improvisation in his compositions Cage stated:
”Ah, you’re just going to find that everybody will play their own clichés.” (Brown, 1972)
I believe that these compositions have the ability to prove the very opposite, as they have to be performed in a creative and spontaneous manner that also challenges us in such a way that we are not able to play our own or others clichés. In Europe in the sixties, particularly in England, we find that experimental composition goes even further than in New York a decade earlier; inspired by the Americans of fluxus and the New York-School of composers, writers and painters, hand in hand with free improvisation and musical-social experiments such as the Portsmouth Sinfonia and the Scratch Orchestra. A focus upon human relationships and questions of gender, social upbringing, class and background became essential for the music created at the time and the Scratch Orchestra performed music in ways that even provoked the ”godfather” of Experimental Music, John Cage.
I have already raised the question why one should play these compositions when one can improvise instead. I find that these compositions each have a strong identity; that they are typical of the time when they were composed and yet they have the ability to sound like the very latest of modern music. This obviously depends on the interpretation, and ultimately on the performance, but at the same time this would not be so if it were not for the way they were initially composed. The first and last tracks on this CD are some of the prime examples of the attempted bonding of improvisation and composition that exist even today, almost half a century later.
For improvisers these compositions have the ability to challenge our own clichés and the way we make music. For instance, I do not believe I would have used preparations on my bass or my voice in combination with it, if I had not been playing these pieces that have triggered other parts of my imagination and pushed me in a direction where my music sounds somewhat different from it usually does. This is also perhaps one of John Cage's greatest achievements; the ability to compose music that forces the interpreter out of his or her habits. To conclude this essay, I would like to point out that Cages music was not left out of this recording because of his animosity towards improvisation, but entirely for other reasons. One of the reasons being that that I felt that it was not really necessary to include his music since a lot of his ideas already are represented here through the works of others – those who both knew him and admired him.
The compositions I have recorded on my solo album as well as discussing in this essay are among the most important compositions to be found in experimental music from the fifties and sixties. They hopefully also show how this way of composing started as well as evolved during two decades, beginning with Feldman’s first graphic score and sonic adventure in 1950, via his colleagues Brown, Cardew and Wolff, and ending with the three-word text piece by Howard Skempton from 1969. Edges and For Strings are the first and last tracks on this CD. In my view, these pieces are perhaps the closest one can get to what can be called a composed improvisation presented in two distinctly different ways: Edges in a graphic and visual way as 31 different signs, and For Strings in the form of only three words.
These compositions have proven to be valuable in understanding the relationship between free improvisation and experimental music in the mid sixties. I believe they are also as valid today as they were almost half a century ago, not only for the music they are capable of initiating, but also through their function as improvisational exercises that can be used in teaching. Although this might sound like a paradox, I believe I have both become a better improviser and have learned more about free improvisation by studying and performing these scores.
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