Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Listening Limits: Music For Merce

Given the sorry under-played status of most of my boxsets, in both physical and digital formats, and my ongoing disenchantment with digital listening, I’ve decided to introduce a listening project of sorts: listening to the entirety of a digital box set, closely and carefully, before listening to anything else. This only applies to headphones with the portable digital device, but I may try and do something similar with CD boxsets, as there are plenty of those lying about under-appreciated.

So, prompted by rereading - and thoroughly enjoying - a review by Ian Penman of the 10 CD Music For Merce boxset, and given I'm presently reading two John Cage biographies, I'm going to listen to all of Music For Merce. I'll do so chronologically, as presented, from CD1 through to 10 1952 – 2009, but having started and already failed to listen only to Music For Merce, I'll enjoy it slowly, alongside other things but not removing it from the player until it's all properly digested.

And so far so good. I'm up to CD3, and the following have been highlights:
Earle Brown: For Magnetic Tape – Interesting, pockets of primitive electronic tones, surrounded by much silence. First ever electronic dance piece apparently
Earle Brown: For Piano I – Heard just after some Sun Ra it sounded remarkably similar, but slower, with more space, and not as enjoyable.
Morton Feldman: Ixion - a chamber work realised here with two pianos, the restricted tonal palette - all sparse high notes - is welcome after such chanced all-over scatter.
Gordon Mumma: Mesa - David Tudor on bandoneon processed to sound like electric guitar feedback
David Behrman – …For Nearly An Hour… [Excerpt] - Beautifully enunciated female voices reading from Duchamp's writing on his The Large Glass
Pauline Oliveros – In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer - confusing, flute tones heard throughout an auditorium beside granular electronics, but overshadowed by Tudor and flautist Jean Rigg conversing over how and where such interjections should take place
Christian Wolff: For 1, 2, Or 3 People [Excerpt] - featuring Tudor on baroque organ, processing it into spat bursts of drone

The 'multi-media' approach I've taken to this - listening alongside reading the Cage books and the liner notes (and Penman's review) - I'm finding really helpful, ,as without explanation, much of this can be difficult to penetrate. Perhaps despite Cage's ideals, an understanding of the process and means behind these works' realisations adds much to their reception. Penman is dismissive of the early piano stuff and it is pretty cold and dry, but as historical documents from that ... confused period of composition, furthermore as live performances, there is much to intrigue.

What's missing of course is the dance - aside from those moments when dancers' feet is all we can hear - but Cage and Cunningham were committed to keeping the forms independent. Nonetheless I'm finding myself drawn to youtube for stuff like this: