Although they’re several decades old at this point, the innovative graphic and other open-form scores of the postwar New York School composers continue to provide inspiration and stimulation for fresh interpretations from contemporary performers. Part of the reason for this could be the very openness and indeterminacy of the works; given so much latitude within their suggestive constraints, a performer is free to bring to bear his or her own musical background in choosing specific musical values for the variables the scores leave open. American Composers, a new recording from French musicians Nicolas Tourney and Phil Canals, which contains thoughtfully creative arrangements of a number of classic works by Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and James Tenney, shows just how alive these works remain.
Tourney, a guitarist and electronic musician, is credited here with electric guitar and objects; Canals is a multi-instrumentalist represented here on saxophone and stones. The two collaborated on 2019’s Looking North, an album that combined elements of electronic drone and freely melodic saxophone improvisations. On American Composers, they eschew the denser textures and more aggressive timbres of the Looking North in favor of a sound that respects the open musical spaces implicit in the scores they’ve chosen to realize.
The opening track, Wolff’s Looking North, is a verbal score from the collection Prose Pieces. Tourney begins with an elastic but discernible pulse laid out in harmonics and semi-muted tones; Canals contributes evenly-weighted lines on the saxophone. Both explicitly through sound and implicitly through silences Tourney and Canals’ interpretation maintains the rhythmic continuity the score calls for. Brown’s December 1952, arranged for solo guitar, is an unusual realization of the classic graphic composition. Tourney’s way of grouping individual notes and chords gives his version more linear continuity and less pointillistic intermittency than many other versions of this always provocative piece. Also unusual is the duo’s setting of Feldman’s grid-like graphic score Projection 1, originally composed for solo cello. The piece here is realized for both guitar and saxophone. Canals plays most of the score’s events; his largely staccato reading is punctuated on occasion by Tourney’s sparse interventions. Canals gives a solo performance on Cage’s early Sonata for Clarinet, a semi-serial piece Cage wrote in 1933 while studying composition with Richard Buhlig and which was composed before Cage really found his own voice. The other Cage piece Canals and Tourney interpret is 1950’s A Flower for voice and closed piano. Canals plays the part for voice, which is mostly confined to four notes, with a contrasting mixture of vibratoless and vibrato tones; Tourney supplies the piano part by drumming with his hands on an opaque surface.
The album also includes the roaring rush of Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion; Brown’s 4 Systems, a graphic score of variably-lengthed rectangles similar to December 1952 which Tourney and Canals realize with a predominance of overlapping long tones; and Wolff’s Stones, another verbal composition from Prose Pieces, which instructs its performers to make a variety of sounds using…stones.
Relative to his New York School associates John Cage and Morton Feldman, Earle Brown (1926-2002) tends to be overlooked both as a composer and as someone who helped reimagine the relationship between composition and performance. But his work with graphic and indeterminate scores, composed in the 1950s, helped define a concept of composition as an open-ended—he liked to use the word “mobile”—process consisting in the dynamic exchange of creative energy between composer and performer. Brown described these scores, exemplified by the FOLIO collection, as “ambiguous but implicitly inclusive” systems which, with the active participation of the performer, would stimulate an engagement with sound through its multiple parameters. Beyond their capacity to elicit a highly creative response from the performer, Brown’s graphic scores—the single-page December 1952 best known among them—are elegant, and elegantly spare, works of visual art in their own right.
The Pugliese pianist Gianni Lenoci has had an interest in Brown’s work for at least a decade, having obtained from the Earle Brown Foundation some scores for study. Like other performers before him, Lenoci, active in jazz and improvised music, was attracted to Brown’s work at least in part because of Brown’s own background as an improvising jazz trumpeter. Unlike a composer like Cage, who long denied the role of improvisation in the interpretation of his own indeterminate scores, Brown fully acknowledged that improvisation was the latent content implicit in his graphic and modular work. Lenoci’s Selected Works for Piano and/or Sound-Producing Media, the recording of which was supported by a grant from the Earle Brown Music Foundation, presents the pianist’s realizations of ten of Brown’s compositions.
Lenoci’s piano performances are exquisite—hearing them, one can imagine sound as the material crystallization of time. The pieces from FOLIO treat sound as consisting in a collection of quanta–a series of brief, discrete points in time defined by their sudden eruption, limited duration, and inevitable dissipation. Moving through the FOLIO sequence these events gradually become longer in phrasing or simply hang in the air, blending into one another—helped, in the case of December 1957 52, by an electronic delay or loop. In contrast to these piano performances, Lenoci’s interpretation of Four Systems is a thicker-textured thing–all electronic scuff and rush. The closing piece, Twenty-Five Pages, is a shimmering kaleidoscope of pianism that never loses momentum throughout its entire twenty-five minute length.
The DownTown Ensemble puts on a show in New York:
The SoundArt Foundation presents the DownTown Ensemble in
According to Brian
Thursday, June 25, 8pm $15/10
Renee Weiler Auditorium, Greenwich House, 46 Barrow St.
The DownTown Ensemble’s June 25th concert at the Greenwich House Music Schoo; will feature six composers in the great tradition of experimental music pioneered by Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles and more recently typified by John Cage, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman. Two of these composers, Brian Dewan and Yvette Perez will perform World Premieres. Also featured on the program will be specially arranged compositions by Phil Corner, Peter Zummo, and Pauline Oliveros; and pieces by William Hellermann and Mary Jane Leach.