A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Air: Steve McCall, Fred Hopkins + Henry Threadgill
Photographer unknown

“As a dancer his instep and his knees are extraordinarily elastic and quick; his steps, runs, knee bends and leaps are brilliant in lightness and speed. His torso can turn on its vertical axis with great sensitivity, his shoulders are held lightly free and his head poises intelligently. … His dances are built on the rhythm of a body in movement, and on its irregular phrase lengths. And the perfection with which he can indicate the rise and fall of an impulse gives one an aesthetic pleasure of exceptional delicacy. His compositions too were in no way derivative in their formal aspect, or in their gesture; they looked free and definite at the same time.”

This is how dance critic and poet Edwin Denby described Merce Cunningham, on the occasion of his first solo dance recital in 1944 (“Elegance in Isolation,” Looking at the Dance, Horizon Books). Cunningham previously established himself as a notable performer in Martha Graham’s modern dance troupe, and he had already entered into a professional and personal relationship with John Cage, who accompanied this recital debut with pieces for prepared piano. By 1953, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Cage, Cunningham, and then-pianist David Tudor all were teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was founded (The Company is still in existence, surviving the deaths of Cage in 1992 and Cunningham in 2009). Cunningham’s radical vision for the Company shared many of the concepts which Cage and Tudor (among others, primarily Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman) were developing to fundamentally alter the role of the composer and affect the relationship between composer and performer. In a 1964 article, “A Movement, A Sound, A Change of Light,” Cage wrote, “…since 1944, [Cunningham] developed his own school of dancing and choreography, the continuity of which no longer relies on linear elements, be they narrative or psychological, nor does it rely on a movement towards and away from climax. As in abstract painting, it is assumed that an element (a movement, a sound, a change of light) is in and of itself expressive; what it communicates is in large part determined by the observer himself. It is assumed that the dance supports itself and does not need support from the music. The two arts take place in a common place and time, but each art expresses this Space-Time in its own way. The result is an activity of interpenetrations in time and space, not counterpoints, nor controlled relationships, but flexibilities as are known from the mobiles of Alexander Calder.”

Since Cunningham’s choreography was a distinct entity and not intended to illustrate, represent, or correspond to the music heard during a performance, the musicians/composers with which the Company worked were not required to supply a score which would be permanently synchronized with the dancers’ activities (typically, Cunningham told them only the length of time that the dance would last). The composer was therefore free to create any combination of sounds, chosen or indeterminate; nevertheless, the shared sense of collaboration offered the mutual advantages of discovery and surprise, and a tacit precedent was quickly set whereby the music was to be realized in the moment of performance – at first using graphic or indeterminate scores, but before long through the involvement of a spontaneous electronic component. And since the state of electrically-generated sound technology in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s – before digital synthesizers and personal computers – was still in its infancy, this meant that the musicians were required to devise their own hands-on electronic instruments, to plot and patch the circuitry that would modify pre-existing sounds or generate new sounds. Over time, technology changed (to say it advanced would be a matter of taste) – from David Tudor’s tangled snarls of cable to Jim O’Rourke and George Lewis seated at laptops in the ‘90s – and, obviously, so did the music.

It’s possible to hear just exactly how the music composed specifically for Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company changed over time thanks to a ten-CD compilation, Music for Merce: 1952-2009, recently issued by New World. As an historical document, and an example of how different composers (and, eventually, improvisers) responded to the conditions – or lack of them – proposed by a collaboration with Cunningham’s dancers, the set is fascinating and invaluable. But I have two quibbles with the way in which the set was produced. First of all, given the size of the project as it is, I wonder why they did not include a DVD showing the Company in action. Despite the many tantalizing photos in the 118-page booklet and descriptions from the several accompanying essays and other outside sources, the experience of seeing the dance and hearing the music simultaneously, as they were intended – even only a single isolated performance – is irreplaceable, and necessary to fully comprehend how and why the music collected here exists in the manner it does. Secondly, of the 56 pieces of music selected by committee (the Company’s current Music Director and the three members of the Music Committee, with apparent input from four other individuals with long connections to the Company), 43 of them are excerpted performances. I imagine that the selection process was influenced by the availability of archival recordings, the sound quality of these recordings, and the desire to represent as many composers and works as possible without duplicating music that may be found elsewhere. Booklet annotator Amy C. Beal rationalizes another problem by saying it would have been “inappropriate and impossible to include complete performances of the music in many cases” due to their length. Nevertheless, to my mind the integrity of these works has been violated by presenting them in an incomplete form. In some cases, only five or ten minutes were edited off, others were cut in half, or represent only a brief portion of the full performance (this is especially true of the thirteen mostly improvised “Events” – most of them six minutes or less – which fill Disc Ten), an especially serious loss in the case of Cage’s orchestral 108 and One8 (1991) and Wolff’s delicate mosaic For 4 People (1994), to mention just two. I would have preferred to receive a smaller number of works if it meant allowing more music to be heard in its complete form.

That said, there is an enormous amount of sometimes exhilarating, sometimes enigmatic music here to be experienced. There are several interesting threads that connect the various composers and their individual approaches. The early graphic scores were contributed by Cage and his New York friends Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman, and the samples given here – Cage’s Music for Piano, Wolff’s For Piano I, Brown’s Indices, and Feldman’s Ixion, each requiring a thorough generative realization by Tudor – are remarkable for their consistency and daring while dealing with unfamiliar procedures and unforeseen instrumental technique. The next step was a leap into the unknown, however – Cage’s Variations V (1965). Although not the first piece to confront the dancers with a live electronic environment, it was the first in which their movements triggered on-stage photo-electric cells which directly affected the musicians’ sound production. The unpredictable, “unmusical” sound events were a metaphor for Cunningham’s definition of dance as “…the energy and the amplification of it which comes through the rhythms” – regardless of how complex or irregular those rhythms seem. Thereafter, electronics became an all-but-inevitable part of the proceedings, filling the dancers’ space with noise and novel textures, adapted to suit each composer’s individual vision. So the industrial tumult, punctuated by dinosaur roars, of Gordon Mumma’s Mesa (1966) existed at the opposite end of the spectrum from the soft, subtle details, high frequencies, and undemonstrative waveforms of Maryanne Amacher’s Remainder (1976). Perhaps more significant are the ways in which composers recontextualized acoustic sounds into quasi-electronic soundalikes – the organ in Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964); the distorted violin in several of Takehisa Kosugi’s pieces; the burbling conch shells in Cage’s Inlets (1977) and rainsticks in Four6 (1992); the sitar in Michael Pugliese’s Peace Talks (1989); and the ambient insect sounds of Annea Lockwood’s Jitterbug (2007). 

If there is a hero that emerges from this collection, aside from Cunningham, whose presence, without a visual representation, is felt only vaguely if at all, it is David Tudor. His name is often left off the roster of the so-called New York School, which is criminally neglectful of his indispensible role as the person who, through conscientious commitment, resourcefulness and responsibility, and extraordinary technique, devised ways to turn their unorthodox concepts into music. In his influential book Silence, Cage tells a story that is especially revealing of Tudor’s character and musical perspective. “Two wooden boxes containing Oriental spices and foodstuffs arrived from India. One was for David Tudor, the other for me. Each of us found, on opening his box, that the contents were all mixed up. The lids of containers of spices had somehow come off. Plastic bags of dried beans and palm sugar had ripped open. The tin lids of cans of chili powder had come off. All of these things were mixed with each other and with the excelsior which had been put in the box to keep the containers in position. I put my box in a corner and simply tried to forget about it. David Tudor, on the other hand, set to work. Assembling bowls of various sizes, sieves of about eleven various-sized screens, a pair of tweezers, and a small knife, he began a process which lasted three days, at the end of which time each spice was separated from each other, each kind of bean from each other, and the palm sugar lumps had been scraped free of spice and excavations in them had removed embedded beans. He then called me up to say, ‘Whenever you want to get at that box of spices you have, let me know. I’ll help you.’”

Tudor was not only an unparalleled interpreter of the graphic, indeterminate, and aleatoric scores by his New York friends, he also introduced music of Boulez, Stockhausen, and other experimental Europeans to American audiences. At the point where Tudor shifted his focus to his own compositional ideas, he moved from the piano to self-designed electronic systems, but continued to participate as a member of the Company’s performing ensemble. Thus he appears here as a pianist seven times, on bandoneon twice, once on both bandoneon and electronics, once on both organ and electronics, and fourteen times on live electronics – seven of them his own compositions, which are among the most unusual and striking works created for the Company. For example, the pulsing, chugging waves and aggressively dense textures of Toneburst (1975) are light years distant from the evocative sensitivity of his New York School cohorts; likewise, Phonemes (1981) begins like a motorcycle revving up and offers intense percussive effects, while the incongruous rattles and cavernous echoes of Sextet for Seven (1982) could be the sound of tectonic plates shifting. By inventing a new system of circuits for each composition, Tudor was able to devise more complex and multiple, layered rhythms than any pianist could negotiate, with a wider range of tonal resources – as in Webwork (1987), where incoming pre-recorded material is chopped up and reconfigured into abstract sizzling, buzzing, bubbling, and scratching; the quiet windswept passages of Virtual Focus (1990); or the punk-like abrasive noise and gargoyle growls of Neural Network Plus (1992), indicative of Tudor’s all-accepting view of music without a hierarchy of “acceptable” sounds or the imposition of personal taste.

Notwithstanding the open relationship Cunningham sanctioned between his choreography and the extremist music he commissioned, there is a palpable sense of risk, and trust, and shared values to be found here; an awareness of art as an activity rather than a commodity. Now that Cage, Cunningham, Tudor, and so many similar innovators have gone, who will remind us of the freedoms that are still out there, just beyond our reach?

Art Lange©2011

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