Monday, August 10, 2015

Authenticity and chance

What's not to like about a classical music riot?  Such disturbances have a long and rich history--warring claques in the world of opera, the legendary reception of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, audience members begging the performers for mercy at a performance of Reich's Four Organs, and more.  The classical music riot is an appealing conceit, the topsy turned turvy, the highbrow descending to fisticuffs, the longhair resorting to hair-pulling.  And, I had the pleasure of attending one last week as a spectator.

It wasn't a big riot, for it wasn't a big concert.  Such fame as it receives will come only through this blog, and perhaps the pages of the Miskatonic University Herald.  I had been invited to that august institution by my friend, D. Avril Poisson, who has graced this blog before both in her capacity as microbiologist and as a musician.  I had recently discussed with her how, as an amateur, chance affects even my most intentional music-making, and not in a good way: I simply don't have the control over my digits that a professional does.  I expressed my displeasure with this, but she suggested that I take a broader view, and reminded me of the stimulation that chance provides the prepared ear--and invited the Real Doctor and myself to a concert by the Miskatonic Pro Musica Nova, contrasting the hyper-defined pianola music of Conlon Nancarrow and chance-driven aleatory music of John Cage.

Nobody riots for something they don't care about, so it's not that surprising that there have been so many classical music riots.  Classical music, serious music, whatever you may call it, is deeply cared about.  The music is the fruit of much effort and intention, and is meant to be treated as such.  Audiences know this, and don't want to be insulted by shoddiness.  On the other hand, when you are dealing with aleatory music of John Cage, it is hard to define what exactly is shoddiness and what is chance.  Cage wrote music guided by the chance and the i ching, and at the same time regarded these works as completely determinate.

At any rate, the concert opened with a set of pieces by Conlon Nancarrow.  The stage was empty of performers, save for a music student who started and stopped a player piano.  Hard to get less chancy than that.

Fittingly, the second half of the concert started with the famous 4' 33"  by John Cage, allowing us a space to open our ears.  Next on the program was Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 from 1951*.  The piano for 4' 33"  was rolled off the stage, and a long table, 24 chairs, and extension cords were positioned at center stage.  Having surrendered to chance for the proceeding piece, I was preparing to enjoy what the universe served up next, as, per Cage's instructions, the student performers would adjust the volume and tuning knobs of radios according to the dictates of the conductor, the score and the i ching.  

The student members of the Miskatonic Pro Musica Nova marched on stage in pairs, holding their radios.  They were initially greeted with polite applause (and over-enthusiastic applause from one helicopter parent, embarrassing a blushing and cringing daughter), but there was also some murmuring and grumbling from one corner of the recital hall.  This built into hissing, and when the conductor strode onstage, he was greeted by a snake-pit of hissing and loud catcalls.

Someone once commented that the disputes in academe are so bitter because the stakes are so small.  So it may have been here--the Miskatonic music department is not large, and half of the music majors were on stage, nervously plugging in their radios as the front rows of the audience seethed with rage.  A group of the younger professors were yelling abuse at the conductor, accusing him of trampling over the intentions of Cage and dishonoring his spirit.  Clapping loudly and whistling and pounding on the stage, making as much noise as they could, they and their graduate students--who comprised the core of the Miskatonic Pro Musica Antiqua--were doing their best to stop the concert from going forward.  The rest of the faculty present (several of whom had heard John Cage and his students performing) were yelling at the others to sit down and shut up.

I couldn't really understand what the ruckus was about.  The words that boiled to the surface of the shouting were a jumble:  vacuum tubes, WFAN, transistors, living score, authenticity, Philco, kilohertz, Rush Limbaugh, and so on.  The Musica Antiqua crowd, led by a young visiting professor from Holland, seemed agitated by the very radios that were being used, while the Musica Nova crowd waved their scores with Cage's instructions at them.  Dr. Poisson, having had her share of brushes with the original-instruments crowd, watched the proceedings with a wry smile; the Real Doctor, who had visibly suffered during the Nancarrow and who does not care for Cage, seemed pleased that the concert had ground to a halt.  The students of the Miskatonic Pro Musica Nova squirmed uncomfortably in the chairs, radios at the ready.  The parents who had come to see their children perform screamed at all of the rioters to let things go on.  An elderly professor of viola whacked a theorbo specialist with a bundle of i ching sticks.  A young harpsichordist yelled loudly that the sound of John Cage must be protected at all costs, leapt onstage from the audience, ran into the wings and unplugged the radios.  Moments later, all the lights in the hall went out, and more screaming ensued.

The riot, such as it was, lasted five or ten minutes, and the lights were back on in short order.  The rioters agreed to let the concert continue, provided that they were permitted to read a statement from the stage.  Hastily written by agitated musicologists, committed to the ideals of musical authenticity, the statement insisted that the following piece was not by John Cage, but only derived from his ideas; that to hear the music of John Cage properly, radios using vacuum tubes playing 1950's pop music would need to be employed, and that nothing less would do.  Having finished reading this statement, the theorboist left the stage, exchanging the hairiest eyeball I've ever seen with the conductor, who gave as good as he got.  It was a satisfying riot, and also, a satisfying performance.  Was it music by John Cage?  I'll defer to Dr. Poisson, who opined, "whatever."

So I passed some time today by playing some of the most inauthentic music possible: an organ chorale prelude by Bach, transcribed for piano by Walter Rummel.  I wasn't even playing it on Rummel's preferred Hamburg Steinway, but instead on an even more inauthentic Japanese Kawai spinet.  So much for authenticity; what of chance?  As I noted to Dr. Poisson, I am an amateur, and don't have the control of my hands that I'd like.  The i ching is unnecessary to introduce random inputs from the universe into my playing; instead, a slight hesitation before the final phrase of the chorale was caused by a slight memory lapse.  The effect was esthetically pleasing, leading to a nice sense of conclusion.

*From the John Cage Website:  For this work, 2 performers are stationed at each radio, one dialing the radio-stations, the other controlling amplitude and timbre. Durations are written in conventional notation, relating to notes placed on a 5-line staff. The rhythmic structure of the work is 2-1-3, and is expressed in changing tempi. Cage uses proportional notation where 1/2” equals a quarter note. However, the notation is not entirely proportional, since accelerandos and ritardandos are still present in the score. The score provides indications for tuning (controlled by player 1), as well as for volume and tone color (controlled by the player 2). When listening to this work, one can’t predict what will be heard, which is exactly what Cage had in mind. In addition, the composition also functioned as a kind of exercise in abandoning preferences (Cage wasn't very fond of radios). As he put it in For the Birds: "I had a goal, that of erasing all will and the very idea of success." His method of composing here is basically the same as used in Music of Changes. Cage employed the I Ching to create charts, which were used to refer to superimpositions, tempi, durations, sounds, and dynamics. In these sound charts, 32 out of 64 fields are silences. In the charts for dynamics, only 16 produce changes, while the others maintain the previous situation. Similar charts were produced and employed for the other parameters. Cage gives an extensive description of his composing means for this work in his “To Describe the Process of Composition Used in Music of Changes and Imaginary Landscape No. 4” (Silence, pp. 57-60).

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