Monday, May 21, 2012

let's talk about music (part 3)

Sorry for the delay! Things needed to be attended to, and thought about deeply (or so I will claim).  If you will recall, last week we spoke about Silfra and The Bright Motion -- two new releases of almost brand-new music, one batch composed by the performers of the album, the other composed for the performer of the album.  Here we're going to talk about a third release with some new music, but also old music, newly interpreted.

Album No. 3: So Percussion - The Cage Bootlegs

Performance practice is a looming issue in all music, from your HIPster period instrument folks to your Mozart cadenza obsessors to your aria aficionados.  It's less talked about with contemporary music, but it's hugely fascinating.  What happens to Music for 18 Musicians or In C in the generational shift from the performers in Steve Reich & Musicians or Terry Riley and crew to Bang on a Can to Alarm Will Sound? Quantifying that shift is difficult, but it's present, and it shapes how those pieces influence later musicy.  Like me, you may have "learned" In C via Bang on a Can and then been a bit surprised by the more hippy-dippy original recording.

And those are the easy cases.  The much, much more difficult ones are with composers like John Cage, and trying to figure out what the hell to do with his vast, complex musical output, not to mention reckoning with the multitudes of written and spoken words, the performances by his collaborators or himself, the Happenings, and everything else.

Warning: moderately nonsensical analogy about comic books and John Cage ahead. Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you want.

I heard a paper given at a conference several months back titled "John Cage's Multiverse."  It was referring specifically to Cage's relationship to the philosophy of William James, but I couldn't help but think of the multiverse with which many nerdier people are more familiar -- that of DC comics.  The multiverse is a set of parallel earths/universes which occasionally come crashing together in massive year-long crossover "events" (I'm not sure if it still exists in DC's ever-relaunching recent history).  The thing is with crossovers is that DC always has to negotiate who gets thrown into its "expanded universe."  Obviously Superman is going to play a role in defeating the Threat-of-the-Galaxy villain, but what about some random Gotham-based police officer who's part of an ongoing prestige comic that only rarely interacts with the big superhero guns? Does every single character that's part of DC's line of a bajillion different comics need to come together ? Does everyone need to exist in DC's "universe"?

This brings us to the idea of "Cagean," one of those name-based adjectives that gets tossed around more than any other in the music world. (Did you eat ice cream while listening to Beethoven? Cagean. Did you listen to your ipod while going to the bathroom? Cagean.)  The thing with Cage is that we can essentially place his entire compositional output under the label "Cagean" (which basically means, at this point, anything) and consider it all as part of the Cage universe, in which everything is an indetermined Happening, a chapter in Silence.  The Cage Bootlegs is essentially a Cagean approach to Cage, subsuming a large slice of his percussion music, as well as music by other composers, within a project in which elements of production, marketing, and packaging all taken on Cage aspects as well.  This wasn't necessarily the case in the past.  Yes, a Cage performance was always Cagean, but all those Wergo and Mode recordings were about as prosaic-looking as any other new music release.

But are all Cage pieces actually "Cagean"?  Just as we might not necessarily need to see every DC character fighting the Anti-Monitor, do we need everything Cage wrote -- even the essentially conventionally-notated, normal pieces like the Third Construction -- thrown into Cage's multiverse?  On The Cage Bootlegs' CD sampler, the So players speak from Cage's Lecture on Something on top of the Third Construction, essentially transforming a "normal" piece into a "Happening" piece.  There's nothing necessarily wrong or "inauthentic" about this, but I'm not sure if every Cage piece actually makes a whole lot of sense placed into what we think of as "Cagean" today. However, The Cage Bootlegs makes a very compelling case of creating a narrative out of this notion, and these spoken excerpts help form the idea of the album as a complete experience (more on that later).

For those of you who skipped those three paragraphs, congratulations! Let's move on.

The Cage Bootlegs (hereafter, Bootlegs) contains, essentially, four things: a record sleeve with an awesome, handmade Rauschenberg-style collage, a completely blank LP (a perhaps overstated 4'33" reference), a CD "sampler" with tracks apparently chosen by the I Ching, and a download card which grants access to recordings of various live shows on So Percussion's Cage tour which included in March.

Funnily enough, I initially made the mistake of what a lot of this post will be about.  I listened to the sampler as an album, getting to know the recordings without realizing that they were actually random snippets and excerpts instead of full pieces.  I mistook a part for the whole, granting a traditional listening experience to only one component of a very non-traditional album.

I soon rectified my mistake by listening to the sampler in tandem with various downloads of live performances.  My sampler recordings all came from a UC Davis concert last October (not sure if it's different for everyone), and the downloads come from various tour stops across the country.  Much of the music that can be downloaded but didn't show up on the sampler -- like Cage's Child of Trees, performed on a cactus -- doesn't quite work with an audio-only recording.  But that's part of what's so fascinating about the album; the musicians create a kind of experience where one feels like one is part of an ongoing project, only living a sliver of what is actually going on (unfortunately, coming to writing about it rather late, everything has already "happened").

So what of the actual music? We get a nice mix of Cage and Cage-inspired.  My sampler began with five minutes of So's recording of Credo in US, a WW2-era work which samples radio and records, appropriating recorded elements of patriotism and classicism (Cage suggests "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" for sections of it).  Our "classic" here is the gunmetal opening of Bon Jovi's Shot Through the Heart --  perhaps the best way to start a Cage album, ever -- which then launches into polyrhythmic percussion goodness.  Later we get snippets of sardonic piano tango and bits of the Star Spangled Banner.  Checking in on the online edition, the samples are even better -- The National's Fake Empire and Radiohead make it onto one version.  Our US is very different from Cage's, and the ensemble has an interesting idea of what "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" might be today.>

As far as "real" Cage goes, the sampler also included a stunningly precise excerpt of the Third Construction -- pretty much the Brahms Violin Concerto of the percussion repertoire (I like to think of the conch shell towards the end as the percussionist mating call) -- as well as part of the subdued Percussion Quartet, and most of Imaginary Landscape No. 1.  The latter is one of the earliest electro-acoustic pieces, and sounds something like an apocalyptic hearing test.  Today, the mixture of phonographs, prepared piano, and cymbals has a wonderfully dated sound, with the high electronic pitches sounding particularly nostalgic.

Then we get the Cagean Cage, and the Cage-derived.  So Percussion has created a "Simultaneous Cage Pieces" work, which layers together three pieces (Inlets, 0'00", Duet for Cymbal) and the lecture 45' for a speaker (which can be found in Silence).  It's an fun conflation of sounds, with lovely little Cage aphorisms ("The best thing to do about counterpoint is what Schoenberg did: Teach it"), muted cymbal hits, and random bits of electronic-y fuzz.  Jason Treuting, one of So's Percussionists, also contributes his 24 x 24, a riff on the Third Construction, with more readings from the Lecture on Something.  This is a particularly intriguing piece, because it introduces drones, which aren't exactly Cage's thing, and that if anything recalled Riley and Young -- a piano occasionally chimes Cs in the back.  It's Cage refracted through the minimalism he helped inspire.

The Cage-inspired, but not necessarily Cage-derived, new pieces come from Cenk Ergun, Dan Deacon, and Matmos.  Matmos' Needles is a fun little series of Reichian clinking patterns which, as it turns out, were produced from an amplified cactus (unlike Cage's cactus piece, this one works pretty well without the visuals).

I enjoyed Ergun's Use, whose score can be seen here.  Written for percussionists, a string player, and "1 wild card performer," it involves each performer playing a series of succeding events -- friction, pattern, pulse, solo, etc.  In the sampler, this includes complicated polyrhythms produced by hollow cans or perhaps drums, whirring noises, whistling, and snatches of viola melody which float in and out.  More intrigugingly, an online recording from a Stanford performance includes violist Beth Myers tuning and warming up her instrument while anarchic percussion rages beneath.  Deacon's Bottles, a 25-minute piece from which the sampler only includes a single minute (I listened to the whole thing online) probably works better as a live visual experience.  The So musicians play simple drumming patterns on bottles while the 45' For a Speaker is read; we later hear a strangely jangly, electric/electronic instrument (guitar?), noise, the sound of the bottles slowly emptying and, towards the end, the keens of the conch shell from the Third Construction.

On the sampler, at least, Cage's written word plays as important a role as the music; pretty much every piece includes a speaker (the same one on the whole album, though I'm not sure who it is) reading various lectures by the composer.  It's occasionally distracting, but mostly it provides an aura of authenticity and an overarching narrative to the experience, as if Cage were watching over the performers' shoulders and approving of the absurdity.

So, what are our big ideas about this album and what it means for new music?  Here are two slightly fuzzy ones which can apply to Silfra and The Bright Motion as well:

The Album as Experience
Again, nothing new here.  Every album is an experience beyond the merely auditory.  Back in the day, the physicality of the LP format, with its liner notes actually on the sleeve, the weight and size of the album, made it a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, a fully-conceived piece of art on multiple levels.  Today, we have the gamut of album experiences, from barebones digital downloads (that's not to say all downloads are barebones!) to those LP + CD + online access + bumper sticker + many-other-things deluxe editions.

The Bootlegs, besides offering a sly commentary on the return of the LP format, is more than just the limited edition series of goodies and extras.  This is an album not only to be experienced as a physical object, with its intriguing handmade cover art, but also as an ongoing and almost participatory experience -- one can continuously check the website, download new recordings from the ensemble's tour, and compare concert to concert (though this ongoing aspect is now, unfortunately, concluded).  The album is a way of charting the journey of the performers, tagging along digitally on their tour.  The problem here, which I'll talk about in the next section as well, is forming a narrative.  The Bootlegs grant me access to multiple downloadable versions of each piece alongside my sampler  -- there is no studio product here, no one single "thing" that the album is.  It's difficult to sit down and hear So Percussion's Cage, in this state, because there are many conflicting things to pick through.

If this were Beethoven, this would be a problem.  We would want a single product, our performer(s) to have focused his or her energy and produced One Grand Statement.  With Cage, it's actually not -- this ongoing approach matches perfectly with the master of anti-narrativity.  The album as indeterminate experience isn't what we got during Cage's lifetime, but it makes sense.

The album today can exist in tandem with a website -- like Silfra's -- which hopefully goes beyond marketing to provide the listener (or perhaps I should say user?) with an interactive and potentially participatory experience .  Musicians and composers are increasingly opening up their works to remixes, mashups, and visual re-interpretations (see: Son Lux).  This is, if anything, a multimedia extension of classical music's necessity of constant reinterpretation.  It's a good thing!

Dealing with the Archive

This is a new problem, and problem might be the word here.  There is an exhausting amount of new music being constantly released, and forming a narrative -- beyond that of this particular Cage album -- can be exhausting.  I can sit down and check out various live recordings on the Bootlegs website, but I would honestly rather hear those concerts in person.  There is now what is essentially an infinite amount of space out there for music (I guess there always was, but now it's infinite space + instant access).  Pretty much every major New York concert that I'm interested in is being live-streamed and archived by WQXR or Q2 (you can experience all of Spring For Music vicariously). and the Digital Concert Hall offer amazing streaming concerts; every weekend Parterre compiles the many operas being live webcast, often with video; every concert Ionarts mentions is one I want to listen to.  Without basically any effort, one can rip many of these streams and end up with lots of gigabites of concerts to listen to at some point in the future, alongside the many studio and live albums constantly being released.  With Bandcamp, new releases from labels like New Amsterdam can be streamed before purchasing for free.

I don't know if there is any one point in history where there is "more" or "less" music out there, and I have no idea how one would quantify such a thing.  But it's a bit exhausting to have an album which isn't a fixed entity alongside all these other streaming things, alongside all these real, conventional "fixed" albums.  I'm not sure if I will return to any of the online So material after this review, and that has nothing to do with quality -- there's just so much out there.

So how does one create this kind of open album experience while negotiating with the fact that The Archive is already so vast?  The release purports to be an ongoing series of bootlegs, and that's a particularly interesting metaphor for what we're talking about.  With the recent wave of specifically-produced albums, as I talked about earlier, via labels like Bedroom Community, we have an instance where the album is a musical work and the performance is another musical work, or a live realization of the album.  Here, there's no one musical work off of which the other is based -- you have a series of indeterminate pieces, each of which is different in every performance, brought together into -- well, bootlegs is the right word.

It's almost an acknowledgement of (or metaphor for) the way contemporary music is increasingly produced today, as series of of performance to performance rather than single monumental work to single monumental work.  So instead of spending two years writing a single piece which attempts to invent an entirely new musical language (this might be called the PhD approach), a composer will spend two years writing a ton of pieces, collaborating, doing some string arrangements for a band, performing her own music and that of others.  It's scrappier, and may result in fewer Teutonically Great works, but more very, very good and well-crafted music (and more concert experiences and opportunities to hear new music).  Our archive grows, and we may lose sight of the Grand Narrative, but what we've gained in immediacy for the music world today may be more important, even if we can't see the forest for the trees.


That's it for the album series.  Check back in a couple days for....WAR! And music! And the Spektral Quartet's promising new project.


  1. Will, this is fantastic. Loved the whole "album series" too. And very helpful to get at it in advance of the Third Coast Percussion Cage 100 CD Release Concert this coming Friday 5/25 in Chicago Keep up the great work. Larry and Arlene Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

  2. Just want to add my applause for this series, which I'm saving for reference. I'm very struck by your concluding statement. ("Our archive grows, and we may lose sight of the Grand Narrative, but what we've gained in immediacy for the music world today may be more important, even if we can't see the forest for the trees.") I'm not sure where I come out, but I like very much the thoughtful way in which you've laid out the arguments, pro and con.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the kind words!