Monday, December 28, 2009

Sensory Overload

Cage's 1966 piece, Variations VII, is a rather unforgettable production. Wanting to use sounds that were available at the time of the performance, Cage asked that 10 telephone lines be installed in the performance space (an airplane hanger, I think) by the New York Telephone Company. In addition, he had lines opened in various places in New York City, including Luchow's, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, the New York Times press room, and Merce Cunningham’s dance studio. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage's sound manipulation system back at the hanger. Cage also had 6 contact microphones on the performing platform itself and 12 contact microphones on household appliances such as a blender, a juicer, a toaster, a fan, etc. Thirty photocells and lights were mounted at ankle level around the performance area, which activated the different sound sources as the performers moved around. The grand result was a technological, cacophonous, electrically powered extravaganza that had the potential to send certain individuals into bouts of hyperventilation. A true sensory overload.

Despite the regrettable lack of kitchen appliances, I might say that I'd experienced a similar "performance" yesterday afternoon, when I accompanied my brother to Kenwood mall. I haven't been to a shopping mall for about six years, and so had had ample time to forget just how unpleasant they are. Upon entering I was filled with a certain disgusted feeling as I walked past ridiculously clothed manikins and displays of shoes and handbags for which one might pay well over a sensible amount of money (and then found myself thinking of starving people in underprivelaged nations...). Shoppers ambled through from store to store, carrying their bags filled with new purchases (lots of Macy's bags. There must have been an after-Christmas sale), and all of the women seemed to be dressed rather similarly in straight-leg jeans with boots and long graphic t-shirts. The constant bombardment by vendors and salesmen attempting to sell you something, anything, was not to be ignored and was greatly unappreciated (though, truth be told, the glare I gave to the man trying to get me to buy a manicure package might have been a little harsh). But before I let myself go on to a diatribe regarding American consumerism as perpetuated by a capitalist society, let me get to something more Cagean.

While my brother made his purchase at the Apple store, I sat on one of the benches outside the shops, watching the zombies-I mean, shoppers -as they walked on by. As I sat there for what seemed like far too long a time, I closed my eyes and took in all of the sounds. There was a roaring tide of hundreds of conversations, some Christmas music playing back by the food court, a baby crying somewhere to the left, the sound of a child's echoing footsteps running on the hard linoleum floor. There was that guy at the kiosk practically shouting about the wonders that dead sea bath products will do for the skin, the techno music coming from inside a clothing store, and the sound of the automated directory, speaking in oh-so-polite tones. And then there were the smells. The perfume counter, the french fries and soft pretzels down at the food court, the pine-scented artificial Christmas trees, the chlorine at the fountain. I opened my eyes and took in the carnival of visual stimulation: bright red Christmas displays, flashing twinkle lights, the loudly dressed manikins and the mulling, also loudly dressed people.

This was definitely a Variations VII-type performance, though perhaps a more "multi sense" as the elements of sight and smell were added to all of the sounds. I realized that all of the constant, sensory stimulation must be used purposefully, likely to sell us things, as all other elements of shopping malls do. Regardless, the experience was largely overwhelming for those few moments and I was more than happy to see my brother strolling out of the Apple store with his computer program in tow.

For the record, I do not plan on returning to any shopping mall for quite sometime. And you can't make me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

True to Life

Much of the philosophy behind Cage's work is centered around perceiving life as it is and yet as art- perceiving life as art. His use of indeterminacy further establishes this. Life's occurrences happen at random, with no preconceived orchestration, thus, composing a piece by use of indeterminate methods mimics this quality. Cage's desire to mimic life and stay true to indeterminacy is clear when one regards his attitudes toward recorded music. Once a performance has been captured, it is no longer a living performance. It becomes two-dimensional, a characiture of the real thing, and no longer mirrors the way life occurs, because the record will always perform the piece in the same way every time (unless your record player is dysfunctional, adding a degree of indeterminacy to the listening of the piece, but that's another matter altogether, for the real life experience wouldn't be of the performance itself, but would be a real life experience of the record played on this particular record player in your parlor).
Recording a performance is an attempt to capture and freeze a fleeting moment, a phenomena in time and space. Cage seemed to be aware that, in real life, one cannot capture such moments, that there are things in this world that are temporary. Life has a progression of sorts that does not always stop for as long as we might like. Leaves change from green to red and yellow, fall from the trees and will inevitably brown and crumble. Sunrises and sunsets will begin and end with or without our blessing. Children will progress into adults despite our demands that they stay as they are. We have put much effort into contriving ways to get around this steady march of time by, say, recording music or taking a photograph, but will always fall short of replicating the real life occurrence.

Perhaps Cage realized, and wanted others to see, that fleeting moments should not be lamented for their loss, but celebrated for their occurrence, however short it may be. That is, rather than regret having lost something, rather than brood over having had something that one can't keep, one should instead revel in the joy it brought while it was present.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dancing in Silence

Since learning of Merce Cunningham's approach to dance and his work with John Cage, I've had a heightened awareness of the degree of dependence that a dancer has on music. In my own experience, that dependence has been rather great and I feel at times handicapped my my reliance on music to dance to. Lately, I've made a conscious effort to dance without music, to focus on the movements alone, instead of the movements as a means to accentuate musical notes. I've also just finished choreographing a dance combination that was put together entirely without music. Let me just mention that the process was unbelievably frustrating, because choreographing with music is hard enough for me, but without music, you're starting from scratch, without any musical suggestions for movement. The process does, however, focus one's attention solely on the movement and, though I intend to dance this with music, I feel like this has helped in polishing the dance. You can concentrate on making the motions without music to distract.

Just like Cage's emphasis on sounds as ends in themselves, rather than a means to an end, Cunningham's focus was on the movement of the dancer. Conventional elements of dance structure were absent from his work: conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax. Cunningham was not interested in telling stories or exploring psychological states, and yet this isn't to say that the theatrics were absent. Many claimed that the drama arose from the sheer intensity of the kinetics. Since he wasn't telling stories, Cunningham's dancers were never actors, never pretending to be anything other than themselves. He once said to his troupe that “you are not necessarily at your best, but at your most human.”

For me, that's scary. Uncomfortable, really. To get up and dance and not be anything other than me? To not become an actress or even a physical expression of the music takes away all feelings of security up on stage. I'd feel naked. And that's terrifying, and utterly wonderful, and yet still terrifying! What an experience for the dancer, let alone the audience. I think what Cunningham does with this is the same thing that Cage did with sounds. He puts the ordinary, everyday in a context that allows it to be viewed as art.

It's interesting how each man's medium can be so different and convergent all at once.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Musical Box Again, and Jazz Police

Once again, the The Musical Box blog is essential reading. This time around, a review of Saturday night's Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly performance in Lexington. As Penny points out in her excellent post on this blog (see below), those of us who were lucky enough to have been at Friday's Thomas More workshop with Rempis and Rosaly witnessed something similar.

On another note entirely, apparently one must be very careful when performing contemporary or experimental jazz in Spain. It seems a disgruntled fan at a Spanish jazz festival called the police to report that the music he was being "subjected to" was not jazz. Indeed, it was some pernicious form of contemporary music that might in some cases prove injurious to one's health. The truly bizarre feature of the story is that the police responded. Read the details here as reported in the Guardian.

Improv Diaglogue

If you were one of the unlucky few to not make it to Friday night's jazz performance, well, I have no words of comfort for you, because it really was as good as advertised and it's just too bad you missed it. Spectacular, really. Anyway, after performing a couple of numbers, Dave Remphis and Frank Rosaly opened up the floor for questions and over the course of a half and hour, I gained a new insight into the inner workings of improvisation.

Improv has always been bit of an elusive practice, to me. The concept makes perfect sense, but I never really understood the practical application, that is, I always thought that there was some sort of special understanding involved with it that I was just unable to grasp- that the musicians must just know something I don't. But after the conversation that took place on Friday, I feel like just a bit of light has been shed into the dark corner in which I always thought improvisation was hiding (and I came to realize that it wasnt actually hiding there at all). Frank and Dave described improvisational music -in the context of playing with other musicians- as a dialogue, a conversation between the instruments. For example, the saxophonist starts with a few notes, the drummer responds, the saxophonist responds to the drummer and so on. It was clear that both musicians on Friday were listening to each other, basing their next move on what the other was doing.

Frank emphasized that hearing what the other musicians are doing is crucial, as is knowing the musical personalities of those one happens to be playing with. He described this with a marvelous analogy about the complexities of conversations with other people. You have your friends with whom you can talk about politics, your friends with whom you can talk out your problems, those you can joke around with, ect. You have to know the musicians you're playing with in a similar manner, because if you try to converse with any of them in the wrong way, you mess things up. That is, you can't try to talk politics with the friends you normally goof off with, because the result is an awkward silence, or simply an uncomfortable exchange.

Knowing these "musical personalities" is also instrumental (bad pun, I know) when it comes to performing well. You can't play with someone who wants to dominate the space, because they, in effect, dominate the conversation and none of the other musicians are going to like that- especially if said musician tries to play over everyone else (Frank mentioned performing with guitarists who just keep turning the volume up on their amplifiers to stay in control of the exchange, much like someone who simply keeps talking louder whenever you try to make a comment). One can't play well with someone who always attempts to control the direction the performance is going, bringing it back to what they want to play, similar to a person who always tries to bring the conversation back around to what they want to talk about. When asked about solos, the guys said that you know when they're going to happen, because the other musician is playing something that takes precedence, that needs to be heard. I see this as what happens when one stops mid sentence to allow someone else's thoughts to be vocalized, because they deserve the floor at the time, because "hey, they might have a good idea- let's listen."
And now, improv is beginning to make perfect sense.... So does this mean that someone doing improv by themselves is performing a monologue?

I love analogies.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rempis and Rosaly on The Musical Box

Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly are visiting Thomas More this evening for a performance/workshop on free improvisation. There is a nice article about them on The Musical Box. Please have a look, and stop by tonight if you are free and looking for some exciting music and discussion.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Back in preschool, we used to sing this song. Didn't find out what a kookaburra actually was until much later (assumed it was a bird, of course, but could never be sure). Recently, this childhood song to so many has been at the center of an intellectual property battle. That's right. And I wonder what'll be next... Ring Around the Rosy?

So, in 1981, Men at Work's "Down Under" became an international pop hit. Twenty eight years later, contestants on an Australian music-themed TV quiz show called Spicks and Specks were asked to guess what children's song "Down Under" contained. No one could figure it out. But guess which one it was. Yep. After the TV show aired, Larrikin Music Publishing filed suit against the two Men at Work members who wrote "Down Under." The "Kookaburra Song" was originally written by a Melbourne schoolteacher in 1934, for the Australian version of the Girl Scouts. According to Adam Simpson, who represents Larrikin Music Publishing in the lawsuit,

" 'Kookaburra' is a copyright work, just like any copyright work, and there are laws surrounding how it can be used." And I thought Girl Scouts were all about sharing. My bad.

Simpson claims that the laws governing fair use in the US are more restrictive in Australia and he's got quite an argument for showing that "Kookaburra" is used significantly in"Down Under." I'll let him explain:

" 'Kookaburra' is a four-bar song. Over half that song is used in 'Down Under,' which is the test of law."

Wow. Two whole bars. What a crime. Simpson says the publisher should collect royalties whenever the Men at Work song is played. Apparently, this happens more frequently than you might expect: Simpson says it's often heard in advertising and in such films as Finding Nemo, Kangaroo Jack and a Crocodile Dundee film (might I point out that the song heard is "Down Under" and not "Kookaburra," but apparently, it's all the same). At the moment, Strykert and Hay, from Men at Work, receive 100 percent of the royalties from "Down Under."

Most Australians think this is ridiculous, but when asked if the lawsuit is really worthwhile, Simpson simply replies, "Yes, it is, and I can't go into any details because — the financials, of course, are still very confidential." Oh yes, but of course. The financials.

What I would like to know is: who was the guy who wrote the question for that quiz show?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Orquestra de Guitarres de Barcelona

The United States isn't a stranger to Spanish guitar. For years the music's character has been pervasive in this country, with musicians continually noting guitarits such as Andre Segovia as influences. It's musical heritage that extends as far back as the Renaissance in Europe and modern instrument manufacturers cite the 19th century Spanish advancements in instrument design as pivotal to the development of the modern classical guitar. But only just recently, one of Spain's newest guitar innovations has reached this continent: the guitar orchestra.

Last week, the Orquestra de Guitarres de Barcelona (that's Guitar Orchestra of Barcelona, if you really need to know) began its tour of the US. Conducted by composer Sergi Vicente, the orchestra consists of 25 musicians all playing the same instrument -the Spanish guitar. They began as informal ensembles of seven or eight guitarists and really just got bigger from there. Now, they're playing things like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Albeniz’s Suite Espanola No. 1, to audiences of 1700 or more.

Pretty cool that a group as big as that can all play an instrument that isn't normally played in numbers like that. Funny how some instruments are designated as fit to be played in large numbers and others are not. Violins, yes. Kazoos, no. Just doesn't make any sense...

They're actually playing tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville and the show would have already started like... 15 minutes ago. Sigh. Organic chemistry homework gets in the way of everything.