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Whizz with a Circuit Board

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Before the Second World War, American composers went to Europe. That was the way of the ‘boulangerie’, the group including Aaron Copland who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. After the war, though, they began to take seriously Charles Ives’s declaration that ‘we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.’ They started taking liberties. In Music 109, his winsome new book on the postwar American avant-garde, Alvin Lucier writes of his first encounter with the music of John Cage in Venice in 1960. David Tudor played the underside of a piano while Cage, Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown danced round the theatre reading instructions for actions out loud from cue cards. Cage tuned a radio to a broadcast of the pope pleading for world peace. At the end of the concert a courtly-looking gent strode angrily down the aisle, hit the piano with his cane and proclaimed: ‘Now I am a composer!’

Much of the work of the American avant-garde was about coincidence – the pitting against each other of unrelated elements, and the accidental synchronies that ensue. This is most obviously true of Cage, whose presence dominates the first half of Lucier’s book: in Indeterminacy, for instance, recently revived by the pianists Tania Chen and Steve Beresford, and the comedian Stewart Lee, an actor reads short stories while a pianist improvises in a separate room, accompanying the reader though he can’t hear what he’s saying. But it’s also true of many of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and Lucier’s own compositions. In Feldman’s The Swallows of Salangan, for chorus and orchestra, the players choose what speed to play their parts at. Lucier compares the moments of fluke when everyone comes together to ‘oases scattered across a desert landscape’.

Spontaneity and improvisation became important compositional strategies. This was partly down to Cage’s influence – he believed that more of the responsibility for music-making needed to be transferred from the composer to the player – and partly to jazz’s. In From Here, Brown, who had worked as a jazz musician, allows the conductor to improvise the structure of the piece on the fly. The score describes 14 ‘events’ that can be played by the instrumentalists: if the conductor wants them to play the first event, he holds up one finger; if he wants a mixture of events one and two he holds up one finger with one hand and two fingers with the other, and so on. ‘European conductors’ – notorious egotists – ‘enjoy performing it,’ Lucier says.

The new emphasis on improvisation transformed notation. Lucier prints a page of Christian Wolff’s score for For 1, 2 or 3 People, a baffling tessellation of stave fragments, dynamic markings and floating notes. Lucier’s gloss makes it only marginally more readable:

Black notes are variously short, up to about a second; white notes are any length… When you see a white note you must remember that it’s not necessarily long and may be determined by the requirements of coordination… A diagonal line toward a note indicates a sound played directly after a preceding sound. You co-ordinate with the sound that came before. A diagonal line going away from a sound indicates that the note must be followed directly by another.

In one sense, performers of For 1, 2 and 3 People enjoy a lot of freedom: they are allowed to start reading the page wherever they like and play the material in any order. But they are also committed to learning a complicated and idiosyncratic vocabulary, and unlearning the traditional one.

Another important story in Music 109 is about technology: the vistas it opened up and the problems it presented. For Lucier, electronics weren’t just a useful addition to the arsenal, they ‘saved our lives’: ‘We composers were in a cultural war. We were colonised by the European musical establishment… then David Tudor came along.’ As well as being a superb keyboardist, Tudor was a whizz with a circuit board. He would build instruments from cheap Radio Shack components and invite his friends to write for and perform with them.

In 1966, Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union with Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma. Among the pieces they composed were Ashley’s The Wolfman, for amplified voice and tape, ‘the loudest piece of music anyone had heard’, and Mumma’s landmark Hornpipe for French horn and a ‘cybersonic console’ that analysed the acoustics of the performance space and filtered the sound of the horn in response to them. Hornpipe was one of the first pieces to use acoustical testing as a means to structure. But electronic music, though it remains the most obvious way forward, hasn’t taken off in the way the Sonic Arts Union, in the 1960s, imagined it would. The biggest problem, as Lucier points out, is that you can still get a degree in composition without learning a thing about circuitry, which means that the field is dominated by boffins without musical training, while ‘real composers’ hole up and write string quartets.

Lucier describes how he came to respond to Mumma’s Hornpipe with his piece Vespers:

One night I had a vivid dream… I saw humans – astronauts perhaps – exploring a dark space in an alien environment. They were beaming sound guns into darkened rooms, collecting information about those rooms and relaying it back to Earth.

Vespers is written for an ensemble of performers with Sondols, hand-held pulse wave oscillators supposed to imitate dolphins’ sonar. The players are blindfolded and navigate the space by firing sound waves into it and listening to the reflections. The piece has harmony, melody, texture, density, but all as a byproduct of echolocation.

A performance of Vespers gives you an acoustic signature of a room, as if one were taking a slow sound photograph over a long period of time. You hear what the room sounds like. That was mysterious to me and wonderful.

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