Rocking the cradle of experimental music

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, the International Herald Tribune, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition.

In the picture above Michael Johnson.

In the picture within the article Alvin Lucier.

I recently became a “chance music” composer by accident – the best way. John Cage would have approved. I was playing a quiet CD, Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, when my little granddaughter started tinkling around on my Baldwin upright in the next room – hitting random notes up and down the keyboard. The two separate events merged beautifully. I’m sorry I didn’t record it.

I was reminded of this today while reading Alvin Lucier’s delightful book, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music. One of his chapters is titled “Indeterminacy” – music that leaves most of the music-making to chance rather than to a composer’s strict instructions. “By using chance,” Lucier cites Cage as having said, you can “eliminate or forgo all those habitual ideas that you have and to discover something different”.

In lucid, deadpan prose, Lucier brings back to life one of the most fascinating and important periods of American music, the experimental trends and fads of three decades ending in the 1980s. Much of today’s new music in the United States, Japan and Europe is founded on the daring innovations developed in this period by a small group of composers, most of them American.

No one is better placed that Lucier to tell this story. He was a participant and, now in his 80s, is a veteran of 40 years of teaching a college-level course on this period at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. His book is a collection of notes for his witty and erudite lectures covering the sometimes outlandish experiments of such historic figures as Cage, LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman and others. 

If you somehow missed experimental music while growing up, I recommend looking for it on YouTube where most of Lucier’s examples are easily available. You may be surprised how accessible much of it is. As I write this, LaMonte Young’s Well-Tempered Piano is playing in background. Nothing could be more calming.

Lucier’s gift for story-telling and his jargon-free language make the book a joy to read. One regrets not having had an opportunity to attend his lively lectures in person.  He discusses and analyzes about one hundred of the key compositions of the period and shares memories of the composers – many of whom he knew personally. 

He recalls one concert in which Cage’s friend, the pianist David Tudor, dives under the piano and begins making sounds on the underside of the instrument. “The audience screamed. … People were furious. I was flabbergasted.” Still, Lucier remembers being also thrilled. At one point Cage rose up on a hydraulic platform playing the piano, using a radio as one of his instruments. The Pope’s voice came on the air asking for peace in the world.  “It was a wonderful moment… I guess you could say that concert blew my mind. I stopped writing music for a year.” 

This slim volume will clear up some mysteries that younger fans of new music wonder about, such as what Steve Reich intended with his rather basic Clapping Music. The answer is obvious when you know it: he was inspired by flamenco dancers when he happened to see a Spanish troupe clapping and stomping in a Brussels club.

Lucier’s talent for the anecdote takes him to Walter Piston’s class at Harvard where a student set to work creating one of Cage’s  “prepared” pianos, inserting penny coins to deaden some of the strings. “Why there must have been 40 cents in that piano,” Piston said. Lucier recalls that Cage “howled with laughter” at that story and made him tell it over and over. 

He also devotes time and space to deliver more thorough inspections of some of the seminal pieces of the era such as Robert Ashley’s Wolfman, first performed in 1964. “It was the loudest piece of music anyone had heard at the time,” Lucier writes. Wolfman is an homage to amplification.”

Other key works covered include Gordon Mumma’s Hornpipe, Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People and Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which he says with some pride “prompted the biggest walkout in the (New York) Philharmonic’s history”. He also notes that Leonard Bernstein introduced the piece by denigrating its importance. Lucier’s comment on Benstein: “Dumb”. 

One of the most interesting deconstructions concerns Lucier’s own milestone work, I Am Sitting in a Room, in which a short statement is spoken into a tape recorder, then recorded and rerecorded multiple times until the words become unintelligible. At the end of 15 minutes, the recording resonates with an eerie kind of music that had never been heard before. As Lucier puts it: “I stayed up all night doing it. As the process continued more and more of the resonances in the room came forth; the intelligibility of the speech disappeared. Speech became music. It was magical.”

People who heard Lucier perform it in person still talk about the experience decades later. 

Lucier and his composer friends suffered from lack of interest from concert-goers. Much of their work is only now being rediscovered and offered to a more receptive – if minority – public.  As Lucier recalls the period: “We composers were in a cultural war. We were colonized by the European musical establishment. Things are better nowadays.”

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